Travel to any one of the dozens of little free pantries or food libraries in the city and it won’t be long before the need is obvious.
In every community, across every quadrant of Calgary, these volunteer-run food pantries are addressing rising food insecurity.
It’s insecurity that began with the Covid-19 pandemic, but has now become exacerbated by rising global food prices.
“In the pandemic, we saw a lot of food scarcity and inequity in our city and wanted to do something to kind of bridge that gap,” said Jenny Kay, a volunteer with Calgary Community Fridge. That fridge is located in the community of Crescent Heights.
The CCF mutual aid organization, run by five Calgary women, provides fresh food along with dry goods. And although located centrally within the city in an inner city neighbourhood, it has become a vital link for some in ensuring they have enough to eat.
“We have people who travel from all over the city. I talked to a couple who would take an hour and a half bus ride to come and use the fridge because they had a family of four they needed to feed,” said Kay.
“They bring a little suitcase with them and get what they could, and it just broke my heart when they would do this and arrive to an empty fridge, because it’s not something that we can obviously guarantee,” she said.
Part of that is because the fridge is filled by volunteers, who restock as often as they are able. And part of is because of the rising cost to fill the fridge.
Addressing the need to fill the Calgary Community Fridge
Bite Grocer in Inglewood has partnered with CCF for the first annual Giveback to the Greater Good(s) fundraising campaign. The goal is to raise $10,000 over the next month to help fill the fridge, and to help reduce the amount of food insecurity in the city.
The grocery is accepting donations at the till, and is selling an exclusive CCF tote bag for $12. Supplies are limited for the tote bags, said Bite Grocer general manager, Neil Godsman, and already they are quickly selling out.
“Just knowing what a lot of Calgarians are going through right now, especially with the rising cost of goods, it felt like a great opportunity for us to try and address some of the issues that people are running into with scarcity of food,” said Godsman.
Because CCF is a mutual aid organization, and not a registered charity, donation receipts are not being issued. Instead, Bite Grocer is offering the person who has made the highest amount of donations, along with one random donor, the chance to have a little 1960s game show fun.
The grocery is doing a timed grocery sweep, much like Supermarket Sweep, which Bite and CCF are calling the Fridge Frenzy Shop Nite. The fun with a serious purpose takes place on July 6.
“We’re very grateful for the opportunity to be a partner with the Community Fridge, very proud of the work that they’re doing, and just to be able to help them help support them,” said Godsman.
And that support, via the community on to CFF is substantial. The ability to have additional funding on the order of $10,000 allows them to weather price changes for when the weather changes.
The amount of dollars they have available for purchasing food for their fridge is always a concern.
“It is a really big concern, especially over the winter months,” said Kay.
“Fresh produce is always the most expensive for what you get value wise, so we find that really dwindles in the winter. And we use stocked funds to be able to provide that when our partnerships with community gardens and other grow organizations dwindle off after the growing season.”
Inflation putting pressure on food security
The inflating cost of food in Calgary is something that Godsman has seen first hand with his customers at Bite Grocer.
“An unfortunate reality is a lot of the conventional products that we’ve been carrying have just jumped in price and because we don’t have the buying power of a Superstore, or one of those big guys,” he said.
“We’ve had actually had to move away from those products because there’s the sticker shock and there’s no one’s going to pay what we would need to ask to make it worthwhile.”
Bite Grocer has been able to make connections with location suppliers to replace those products for their customers. Godsman said he has taken a lot of pride in being able to provide local and unique offerings to his customers.
But there is a serious undercurrent that mirrors that of the CCF: Bite is the only grocer in Inglewood.
Without them customers would have to travel into the East Village for groceries, or rely on whatever offerings are available from smaller markets or convenience stores. And without the presence of a grocery store within a community that’s accessible to those in need, there is a risk of food deserts being formed, and along with it increased food insecurity.
Food security is a complex issue in Calgary
Within the city there are formal and informal food security systems in place.
The formal systems are the groups like the Calgary Food Bank, which operate as registered organizations. The informal system is comprised of the various food pantries and food libraries, like Calgary Community Fridge.
Vibrant Communities Calgary has been on the forefront of collecting and disseminating data and information about food insecurity and poverty in the city.
The non-profit is planning on releasing and updated food security research report in the next several weeks. Meaghon Ried, executive director for VCC, said that they had to prepare the updated report because the problem with food insecurity is progressing so quickly, that it's hard for data to keep up.
"Looking at the inflation numbers yesterday, the food inflation is through the roof: meat, dairy, grain, it's all above five per cent In terms of inflation," she said.
Among the reasons suggested by experts include less competitive markets internationally, and changes in incentives given to farmers and ranchers for certain types of foodstuffs.
"I think one of the other challenges we sometimes have is that we get so tied up in the inflation number, the percentages of food that has increased, the 190,000 Calgarians that live in poverty, the 80,000 people who need affordable housing," she said.
"That human is hungry, and that they can't feed their family that night is a really devastating thing."
Eschewing formal food systems
Reid said that for many reasons Calgarians are eschewing places like the food bank in favour of the local food pantry.
"We've heard time and time again from people who are accessing the informal food system in Calgary, is that they do that for many reasons, but with an overarching umbrella of dignity," she said.
For many Calgarians facing food insecurity for the first time, the level of information required to be given to access formal food security—such as income and proof of need—along with time limited access, can be daunting.
"Whereas with this informal food system, you can anonymously go get food anytime of the day or the night, and for a lot of people, particularly those people who are new to food insecurity that that is the better option."
Kay said that CCF doesn't track formal use of the fridge. By design, the collection of food is anonymous, and no questions are asked of those taking food. Informally, the volunteers use the need to restock as a gauge for what demand is.
"We can't know who they're collecting it for it, we can't know what kind of circumstances led them to feel like they need to potentially hold on to that food. That is psychological safety for people," said Kay.
Reid said that Vibrant Communities Calgary has been seeing the same sort of issues broadly as Calgary Community Fridge in terms of demand.
The statistics collected by formal system providers suggests that the need for food is significantly up. Reid said that for the Calgary Food Bank, this demand was up 44 per cent since 2019.
"That is the canary in the in the coal mine, I think."
Inflation having deep impacts on Calgarians in need
Among the first things to go for Calgarians facing poverty is food, often before shelter said Reid.
"And, you know, we're even hearing people who stopped taking some of their medications because they have to take medication with food, and they can't afford food like this," she said.
"We're already hearing from a lot of people that are already priced out of the food market."
Another impact that Reid has observed is the substitution of one type of food for another, with meat and dairy being among those primary foodstuffs.
"People can't keep up," said Reid.
She said that while on the surface, this might seem like it has positive impacts, especially for those who promote vegetarian lifestyles, it does have consequences for people who are navigating that product substitution.
"The challenge with that is that making that change often means that people are just relying on nutrient deficient carbohydrates, like a lot of pastas, a lot of cheaper foods, and so they're not meeting their dietary needs," she said.
"That has an onward impact, of course, in terms of physical health."