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Fort McMurray food bank struggles to meet ‘off the charts’ demand

WATCH ABOVE: It's been two months since Fort McMurray evacuees were allowed to return home. Many of them are still piecing their lives and homes back together. It's put a lot of strain on community services, like the food bank. Sarah Kraus has the story.

The Wood Buffalo Food Bank is spending $9,000 a week on non-perishable food items, trying to meet an overwhelming need in Fort McMurray.

Organziers describe the current demand as “off the charts.”

In fact, 94 per cent of people who visited the food bank in June 2016 had never accessed a food bank before.

“Two months since Fort McMurray lifted the evacuation order, the demand for fresh food hasn’t let up whatsoever,” Arianna Johnson, executive director of the Wood Buffalo Food Bank, said.

In all of last year, the Wood Buffalo Food Bank gave out nearly 5,000 hampers. It’s distributed that same amount in the two months since the fire, helping more than 13,000 people.

READ MORE: Red Deer food bank staff see ‘heart-wrenching,’ unprecedented demand 

About 28 per cent of those helped by the food bank are children. Staff have moved from a monthly distribution of hampers to a weekly schedule in order to meet the increased demand. The food bank plans to return to a monthly distribution Sept. 1.

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The food bank also had to hire nine more employees to keep up.

“I think we did about 4,900 hampers all of last year,” Johnson said. “So, in two months, we’ve done pretty much a year’s worth of work.”

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On Tuesday, volunteers with CIBC – many of whom are victims of the wildfires themselves – filled hampers for the emergency Fill the Fridges and Cupboards campaign.

“We’re going to help unpack it and sort bins and provide it to those that are in need,” Tom Weber, CIBC regional director, said.

READ MORE: Alberta men have higher unemployment than Canadian average for the first time since 1989 

The company is helping Fort McMurray residents restock their kitchens with a food bank donation of $200,000 – enough to purchase 16 pallets of fresh food.

“This is absolutely huge for us,” Johnson said. “CIBC is providing fresh, healthy food to everyone for free – everything from carrots, onions and potatoes to apples, pears and oranges.”

The bank matched $100,000 in employee donations for the emergency food drive. Working with Alberta Food Banks, Team CIBC donated nearly $400,000 to support food banks in need.

“The generosity of individuals and corporations during this time has been amazing and it’s made our lives a lot easier,” Johnson said.

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Out of those households currently using the Wood Buffalo Food Bank, 59 per cent have only come once. The organization is not seeing its regular clients; the majority of the people accessing services live in the areas most affected by the fires. Only six per cent of the food bank’s clients have returned after the wildfire.

“We do worry a little bit about where they are and what’s going on for them,” Johnson said. “But I suspect a lot of them aren’t back yet because we have a large population of clients who live in the three most affected areas.”

In May, upwards of 80,000 people were forced to leave Fort McMurray when a wildfire aggressively turned on the city. The blaze destroyed thousands of buildings.

READ MORE: ‘It’s a lot to deal with’: Fort McMurray residents clean up after rain, flooding 

This past week, several neighbourhoods were dealt another blow – this time in the form of flooding.

Severe storms and heavy rain caused localized flooding in low-lying neighbourhoods throughout downtown, Gregoire and Thickwood.

Some areas of Fort McMurray saw 85 mm of rain in just two hours Sunday morning, forcing the municipality to reactivate the Emergency Operations Centre, but nobody was hurt.

“It’s a hard thing, when you come from a place of prosperity, to suddenly be in a place of need,” Johnson said. “We’ve tried to make it as easy as possible for people. Right now, all you need to use our services is a Red Cross number.”

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With files from Sarah Kraus, Global News