Retiring head of Barrie food bank reflects on challenges of pandemic, jump in demand

Click to play video: 'Canadian food banks on the brink: ‘This is not a sustainable situation’'
Canadian food banks on the brink: ‘This is not a sustainable situation’
RELATED: Food banks in Canada are being pushed to the brink with high demand and donations not keeping pace, and experts say it’s unsustainable. The last four years have been financially tumultuous for Canadians, with a global pandemic and rapidly increasing inflation leading to high grocery prices, more and more people are finding themselves unable to afford the basics – Apr 26, 2024

After seeing the organization through an unprecedented jump in demand and a global pandemic, Barrie Food Bank’s executive director is retiring.

Sharon Palmer, 62, is reflecting on what the last three years have looked like and what needs to change to address the underlying issues of food insecurity.

Palmer took on the role in March 2021, a year into the pandemic, and a time when many organizations had to rethink how they serve residents and when so many in the community needed support.

Since she started, the food bank has expanded the hours and days it operates and changed how it serves residents, but Palmer says it’s the people that have had the greatest impact.

“I think that if you haven’t been here, you haven’t been a volunteer, you haven’t needed service yourself, it’s hard to appreciate just what it means to someone who is able to come and get food support,” Palmer says.

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“It’s never an easy decision for someone to acknowledge that they have to have support, and so we see this tremendous gratitude. (It) keeps you humble and makes you realize what an impact you’re making on someone’s life on a day-to-day basis.”

Sharon Palmer, executive director of the Barrie Food Bank, is retiring. Supplied by Barrie Food Bank

Palmer says it’s not just the clients but the staff, volunteers, and community members who have also left a mark on her during her time at the food bank. She says she was particularly impressed by the “tremendous generosity” the people of Barrie offer in supporting the food bank.

“It is incredibly overwhelming to see how many people come out and give what they can to support us in so many ways,” she says.

Regarding the COVID pandemic, Palmer recalls the first year focused on navigating the new and changing rules to keep the doors open and the people safe. The second year focused on restructuring the food bank’s service model from pre-bagged groceries to a self-service shopping model, allowing people more autonomy over the food they select.

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“The self-service model was better in terms of efficiency, as well as an experience for the people who need to use the food bank. So that was a big transition for us,” Palmer says.

For the final year, she says the focus has been on unprecedented growth in demand.

“When I first came here, you know we saw 60 to 70 clients in a day and that was a lot. We were only open three days a week for a couple of hours. Now we’re seeing in the neighbourhood of 260 clients in a day, and we’re open four days, and we have much greater hours,” she says.

Barrie Food Bank, like many more throughout Canada, is facing the challenge of meeting a growing need that  has only gotten worse following a global pandemic and high inflation.

A 2023 report from Canada Helps found that 57.3 per cent of charities cannot meet current levels of demand and that 31.5 per cent of charities raised less money than the year before.

“The ebb and flow of food is always a challenge. Sometimes we have more, sometimes we have less, but that is something that we constantly focus on, as well as the food rescue in particular, and then our major campaigns,” Palmer says.

Looking to the future, and what she would like to see now that she is stepping down, Palmer says the focus needs to be on addressing the underlying cause of food insecurity.

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“That’s advocating for changes from a policy perspective,” she says, pointing to things like housing affordability, low wages, and income supports like Ontario Works, disability pension benefits, old age security, and CPP.

As she steps down in August, she is optimistic about what comes next.

“It’s a special place. I’m going to miss it tremendously, to be honest, but I also know that someone else will step in with a different set of skills and do a fantastic job. It’s a wonderful place to be and to witness what happens here,” she says.

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