Food bank changes in Swift Current

Sue McKeown (at left), the community ministries worker for the food bank, and Salvation Army Capt. Charlotte Dean stand in the transformed food bank.

The Salvation Army food bank in Swift Current has a new look and layout that provides clients with the freedom to select their own items for a hamper.

Over the past few months volunteers have been helping to transform the food bank from a store room to a new format with shelves and aisles that are similar to the layout of a regular retail store.

“This change is really about providing more dignity to recipients of the food bank,” Capt. Charlotte Dean said. “One of the most challenging things in life that a person has to do is to actually get to the point where they have to say I can’t afford to get all of my own food, and they have to come to the food bank. For some people it’s a demeaning experience.”

Food hampers were previously prepared by volunteers and while the items were carefully selected based on dietary needs, it was always chosen for clients.

“It wasn’t necessarily always items that they in particular would have chosen had they been able to go to the store themselves,” she said. “So this is to provide families with the dignity of being able to come and choose the items that are most helpful to their family in their time of need.”

Clients are now able to enter the food bank and select their own items, similar to the experience anyone will have when they visit a store to buy food or personal hygiene items.

“The volunteers were certainly careful and they tried to select wisely,” she said. “However, you can’t do it perfectly when you’re choosing for another person. That’s not really been an option in the past to actually ask for particular items. You wouldn’t have been able to see into the food bank. You wouldn’t know what you could ask for, and this will provide them with the opportunity to say I would like to have that kind of soup or pasta, or I see that kind of cereal. To be able to look around and see what is available to them and ask to make trade-offs and switches for things that are most appropriate for the family.”

There is a shelf area with items for clients with specific needs, for example a family with a baby, or for a person who is diabetic or who follows a gluten-free diet. This shelf also contains items for clients who may be living in a motel, where they only have access to a microwave to prepare food.

While clients will be able to make their own choices during their visits, they will still be accompanied and they will receive guidance with regard to the number of items that can be taken. Clients will not have access to the freezer, but they will be asked if they want any frozen meat.

“There is still a controlled environment,” she said. “We have to do that in order to make sure there's enough to go around, but they'll be able to pick and choose between the kinds of soups and the kinds of pasta and the kinds of cookies and the kinds of cereal, and I think that will be really nice for people. We're super excited and for most people it's going to be the first time they what's been behind this door.”

Sue McKeown, the community ministries worker for the food bank, prepared a detailed planogram to show where specific items are placed on the shelves.

“I mapped it out like you would a grocery store,” she said. “So then after the first few appointments people will be able to make a kind of food list of what they need and they’ll know we have this now. Of course, it fluctuates depending on what the donations are.”

The first appointment of a food bank client under the new format took place on Jan. 28. Clients have been informed about the upcoming change and they were looking forward to it.

“It’s never been a negative, it’s always been positive,” she said about their response. “So they’re really happy. They’re actually excited about it.”

Capt. Dean has already seen the benefits of this format at the food bank in Maple Creek, where it had been implemented several years ago.

“We found that it was the most effective model,” she said. “People were really happy with it, just to be able to pick and choose. Even something like choosing between crunchy and smooth peanut butter. To be able to do things like that was very beneficial.”

One of the surprising and unexpected results of this shopping format in Maple Creek was that the size of the hampers selected by clients actually were slightly smaller.

“We found that overwhelmingly people took less food than what we may have packed up for them ourselves,” she said. “That’s because they were choosing exactly what they needed, whereas when we were packing a hamper for them, we would be throwing in extras just in case. What if the kids don’t eat that, let’s throw in this. We would throw in extras and then sometimes things would be returned to the food bank, but we found that when people started coming in and choosing for themselves, the size of the hampers actually went down somewhat.”

The conversion of the food bank in Swift Current to the new format was done with the help of volunteers and businesses also helped out. Pharmasave in Maple Creek did some in-store changes and had shelving that they donated to the Salvation Army, while six to eight volunteers from Crescent Point Energy helped to install the shelves over two days.

“We are very grateful for the support of partners like that in the community that can come in and just get that kind of work done,” Capt. Dean said. “They were amazing.”

There are on average about 21 appointments per week at the Swift Current food bank. An appointment can be for a single individual or for families of varying size. There has been in increase in use, with a lot of singles, couples and seniors, but also families.

“We are always looking for donations of food,” she said. “At the moment we have a pretty good stock, but give us a couple of months or even another month of just giving away products to 21 families a week and we’ll plough through it pretty fast.”

Volunteers are also welcome to assist at the food bank, and at the moment they are specifically looking for one or two individuals who will be able to assist with lifting some heavier items.

“We have some heavier jobs that routinely need to be done on certain days of the week,” she said. “We are looking very specifically for people that don’t mind putting a little muscle into it and helping lift some of the heavier things when they come in.”

For more information about volunteering at the food bank or specific items needed by the food bank, call the Swift Current Salvation Army at 306-778-0515.

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