In a small multi-purpose room in a west Edmonton condo, Renee Vaugeois moves quickly, placing cans of food, bags of chips, juice, fruit, meat, whatever she has on hand into boxes.
She dashes out the door, her dolly stacked precariously. Two volunteers are on their way to deliver the emergency hampers and she doesn’t want to make them wait.
The small room has become a food hub, created out of necessity nine months into the pandemic. It’s one of many hubs that have come out of the YEG Community Response to COVID19 Facebook group, set up by Vaugeois at the beginning of the pandemic.
“It’s been like an emergency response effort ever since, constantly evolving and growing, Vaugeois told CBC News.
“But it’s really grown,” she said. “I don’t think we ever expected to be doing the amount of gap filling and support to the community that we are doing on this page.”
Wednesday was Cindy Walker’s second night volunteering to deliver the hampers, loading her SUV for deliveries in three communities.
Walker helped out a few times at the beginning of the pandemic, but after seeing the need grow online in recent weeks she decided it was time to step up again.
“I’ve been out of work since really COVID hit and the lockdown started, so it feels good to give back and to be doing something productive and helping other people. It’s incredibly rewarding.”
She takes off with a wave and a word of gratefulness from Vaugeois.
Last week, 181 of the emergency hampers were dispatched from the room feeding dozens of desperate people. Food comes from the Edmonton Food Bank and from various donations from the community.
“It’s nourishment.” Vaugeois says about the Facebook page. “It’s not just about providing canned foods or pasta. Food is part of your heart and soul, it makes you feel human.”
Vaugeois tears up as she describes some of the people who have been helped: A single father who is visibly starving, his children so grateful for the box of food, an undocumented person who feels they have no other way to access what they need, a woman who began selling her body to be able to eat.
“The more I think about it these people are in their homes and they’re out of sight, out of mind. And yet they’re so deeply in struggle.”
An army behind her
Vaugeois is also the executive director of the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights, so she is able to use her connections under the umbrella of the Coalition for Justice and Human Rights.
Her partners, which include the Elizabeth Fry Society, Self Advocacy Federation, Voices of Albertans with Disabilities, the John Humphrey Centre and the Edmonton Food Bank help keep the movement going.
Then there is an army of volunteers who not only help with deliveries, but also staff food hubs in different areas of the city.
In the past month, a free food pantry was set up in the Bethel Gospel Chapel in the Alberta Avenue neighbourhood. Vaugeois, along with the neighbourhood empowerment team, the City of Edmonton and Arts of the Ave came up with the idea to address an area of the city that experiences more food insecurity.
“We wanted to create a space that was really super accessible for people,” Vaugeois said.”
“People can come in and pick what they want. It helps reduce waste, but it also gives a bit of dignity in that people actually access the food that they eat and that they want and that they need versus kind of just getting a hamper.”
It runs every Monday. This past week, 148 people came through the pantry in two hours. No ID is needed to access food.
Several groups have begun using the Facebook page to let people know where they can access help such as the Glengarry Child Care Society, which operates a small food hub out of their space, or several postal workers, who have been handing out food hampers since the beginning of the pandemic.
It’s also become a place to mobilize. On a day when someone asked for volunteers to help make sandwiches to feed the homeless, 29 women stepped up.
As Vaugeois talks about how the community has really come through, there’s concern in her voice.
“I think people’s mental health and anxiety is increasing a lot. I can feel it on the page already. I don’t know what to expect.”
She says she hopes that the pandemic will help to remove the barriers for basic human needs.
“It’s binding people and breaking down barriers,” Vaugeois said.
“How people are connecting and working with each other, and holding each other and supporting each other, it gives me a lot of hope that we can do this.”