In 1981, the Edmonton Gleaners Association, more commonly known as Edmonton’s Food Bank, was established to solve two issues: hunger was affecting the lives of many people served by local non-profit organizations and edible food was being wasted in the community. There was a desire to establish a channel to glean surplus food from the food industry to help those experiencing food insecurity. Since then, the Food Bank has been providing food to soup kitchens, shelters, schools, and other community groups along with individuals and families needing food help. The Food Bank collects food from grocery stores, the general public, the food industry, and at community events to feed those in need within our city.
From its humble beginnings in the Prince of Wales Armouries to an established warehouse, Edmonton’s Food Bank feeds over 20,000 Edmontonians each month while supplying food to soup kitchens and shelters like Hope Mission and the Mustard Seed.
“Each and every day, we are working with our partners and community groups to distribute quality, nutritious food to those in need,” said Marjorie Bencz, CM, Executive Director of Edmonton’s Food Bank. “Continuing the work to reduce the causes of hunger is essential. Despite all the changes in the world, we still envision a community where hunger does not exist, where everyone has access to an adequate and nutritious supply of food.”
Throughout the year, we will add videos to this article illustrating how Canada’s first food bank has impacted people and our community. These stories serve as inspiration and documentation of the accomplishments of our community and the positive impacts of our 40-year journey. It is thanks to donations from the community that we have weathered the dynamics of economic booms, busts, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Donors, volunteers, businesses, and community partners have supported Edmonton’s Food Bank through donations of food, funds and time to feed our neighbours.
Please note that portions of these videos were recorded prior to COVID-19 restrictions in Alberta.
Chapter One - Inception
Prior to the organization’s inception, an ad-hoc committee was formed out of the Marian Centre made up of local agency members including Mike Fagan, Bob McKeon, and Francis Lopez. They began investigating the possibility of establishing a food bank to serve agencies located in the inner city. Bob McCarty from Phoenix, Arizona gave this fledgling group a weekend workshop on food banks.
From there, Edmonton’s Food Bank evolved through different spaces including five rooms in the Prince of Wales Armouries (1981-1986), a closed Safeway store at 9020 Jasper Avenue (1986-1989), a warehouse facility at 10218 111 Street (1989-2004), a warehouse facility on 120 Street (2004-present) in addition to the Annex building on 120 Street (2014-present).
We were able to speak to a few members from the committee at the Marian Centre to share their stories of leadership.
Food Bank Inception
A long time volunteer and friend of Edmonton's Food Bank, Janet Hughes was part of the group that started the organization in 1981. She served as the board chair for about 25 years where she saw the Food Bank grow into a large operation. Janet was previously involved at Operation Friendship where she helped work on the Pioneer Place project; a 175 unit apartment building responding to housing needs for seniors. As her son Doug puts it, she was always involved in doing a lot to help other people. So he said it was no surprise that she wanted to take more of an active role with the Food Bank. Since 2000, the Janet Hughes Award has been presented in recognition of a person who has contributed to lessening food insecurity in Edmonton. Janet passed away on January 20, 2019. Before she passed, we sat down with her and she shared her story of leadership.
Story of Leadership - Janet Hughes
Chapter Two - Leadership
One memorable leader was Doug Hughes, the son of the late Janet Hughes. He said his mother was a positive influence on his desire to get involved with various organizations such as WeCan and Paper Chase. Doug has volunteered with Edmonton’s Food Bank as a board chair on the Board of Directors and at events such as the Heritage Festival. Doug recalls a volunteer appreciation dinner as an eye-opening moment with the Food Bank, where he was overwhelmed by the turnout and pure enthusiasm of the volunteers. Going forward, he’s excited to get back to volunteering on a regular basis in the warehouse or at events. In the meaBBntime, we sat down with Doug at his law firm in downtown Edmonton for this story of leadership.
Story of Leadership - Doug Hughes
Brian Bechtel was the second executive director of Edmonton’s Food Bank from 1986-1989. Even as a young man in his late 20s, Brian had always wanted to work towards policy change in the non-profit sector. When he became executive director following the departure of Gerard Kennedy, Brian continued to build on the growing support for the Food Bank. The organization was transitioning from a mom-and-pop kind of shop to a viable and reliable agency over the next 40 years.
Brian’s story of resilience tells of setting up the Heritage Festival following the 1987 tornado. In the aftermath, their tents were flattened and food donations had to be diverted to emergency relief services. Brian shares that being present at this time was quite an experience, and it was inspiring to see how well the city responded to the disaster. Even through disaster and growth, it was the people at the core of Edmonton’s Food Bank who continued to make the brand strong.
We caught up with Brian at a former Food Bank location, (an old Safeway store) for his story of leadership as executive director.
Story of Leadership - Brian Bechtel
Another story of leadership is Sandra Neis, the current board chair of Edmonton’s Food Bank. She tells us why she decided to join the organization and shares her view of food banks as foundational charities.
Story of Leadership - Sandra Neis
Marjorie Bencz, CM started as a volunteer with the Food Bank in 1987, before taking on the role of executive director for the organization in 1989. As a volunteer, she helped conduct a survey of single people using food bank services and packed food hampers for those in need. When Marjorie became executive director, she used the findings from the survey to share what barriers food bank clients experience with the broader community. “[We are] making change as a community [and] ensuring that governments are aware of what’s happening on the frontline,” Marjorie explained.
We sat down with Marjorie in front of the hamper line in our main warehouse where she shares her story of leadership, changes the organization has faced, and the dedicated volunteers and staff that help feed the hungry.
Story of Leadership - Marjorie Bencz
Chapter Three - Clients
One of our stories of hope is about Hani Barzagar, Mehdi Barzagar, and Moe Barzagar. They immigrated to Canada when they were young kids, and their family sought support from the Food Bank. As adults, they've given back by doing what they do best: construction and maintenance through their company, HIBCO Construction.
Story of Hope - Barzagar Brothers
Nova Hotels president Richard Wong shares his story of using the Food Bank as a child, advice for those who need help, and the importance of giving back.
Story of Hope - Richard Wong
As a young man with a wife and first child, Shane Gummow struggled with their finances and turned to the Food Bank for help. Looking back on it, they've instilled the importance of giving back to their two kids, and Shane sends that message to others too.
Story of Hope - Shane Gummow
Edmonton’s Dan Johnstone, known as Can Man Dan shares his story of using the Food Bank while living in a single-parent household with his brother, what Christmas means to him, and his advice to those in a tough situation.
Story of Hope - Can Man Dan
Chapter Four - Volunteers
Volunteering at Edmonton's Food Bank is a family affair for Stacey Urwin. In this story of commitment, Stacey discusses what volunteering at the Food Bank means to her, and how it's a welcoming place for families. Her daughter Chantel came in to earn volunteer hours for school, and still continues to come back as she enjoys working with all the staff and volunteers.
Story of Commitment - Stacey & Chantel
Lee Madzinga and Justice Mubayiwa are current volunteers at Edmonton's Food Bank. In this story of commitment, they share their experience of using the Food Bank when they were 10 years old, their time volunteering on the hamper line, and the importance of giving back.
Story of Commitment - Lee & Justice
In 2008, Heather Klimchuk was elected MLA for Edmonton-Glenora, and became more involved with the Food Bank. Her inspiration was her colleague and Speaker of the Legislative Assembly at the time, Gene Zwozdesky. Heather said that Gene was always championing for the Food Bank. Heather was a consistent support at Food Bank events such as the Purolator Tackle Hunger when her and her family brought a food donation. We met with Heather at the Legislature grounds to hear her story of leadership.
Story of Commitment - Heather Klimchuk
As a way of giving back during his retirement, Richard Ouellet started volunteering his time at the Food Bank 12 years ago, and hasn’t looked back since. Richard began on the hamper line, building hampers for the depots and walk-ins. He realized that the walk-ins at the main warehouse were a chance to actually meet people in need and see that he was making a direct impact in their lives. “You see the joy that they present when accepting the food.” he states.
More recently, Richard has done lots of driving and warehouse work which he enjoys. He’s also volunteered his time at the Beyond Food program which helps individuals learn valuable skills and attain qualifications to be job-ready, and supports the Food Bank’s vision of continuing connections beyond food to social supports.
Story of Commitment - Richard Ouellet
Several years ago Teresa Masse started taking her son Jackson, who has a learning disorder, out into the community to expose him to different situations and people. When they volunteer at the Food Bank, Teresa works as a general warehouse volunteer, and Jackson is in his element, wrapping pallets, running the pallet jack, and bringing pallets into the coolers. Here’s Teresa and Jackson’s story of commitment.
Story of Commitment - Jackson & Teresa
David Lee was looking for volunteer opportunities throughout the city to give back to the community. The flexibility of volunteer shifts drew him to the Food Bank and he enjoys his duties which include sorting donated food and packaging food hampers.
Story of Commitment - David Lee
A former Speaker of the Legislative Assembly and long-time supporter of Edmonton’s Food Bank, Gene Zwozdesky shared his story of commitment. He has helped fundraise, food-raise, and volunteered at special events, including at the annual gala fundraiser, Tom Jackson’s A Huron Carole. “[It’s] part of my DNA to help out,” Gene told us. Unfortunately, Gene passed away on January 6, 2019. We’ll always be grateful for his contribution to the organization.
Story of Commitment - Gene Zwozdesky
Chapter Five - Events
Allan Watt from the Edmonton Elks has been involved with the Purolator Tackle Hunger initiative from the beginning. When we met with him outside the locker room, he was ecstatic with how the whole football team bought into the idea for the event. Despite many dedicated players who have stepped up to be the team lead for Tackle Hunger over the years, one name that resonated most with Allan is J.C. Sherritt. J.C. was a team captain and leaguer, and felt good about doing meaningful work in the community. Allan also gives full credit to the fans who year after year, show up carrying food or bringing money on game day. With more on that, here is a story of giving.
Story of Giving - Edmonton Elks
Chapter Six - Programs
Edmonton's Food Bank joined forces with the Edmonton Convention Centre in 2009 with the Second Helping food recovery program. The program donates prepared but not plated food from large banquet facilities. In 2020, the Convention Centre donated over 2200 kilograms of leftover food that was then served to Edmontonians in need through our agency partners.
After becoming a donor of Edmonton's Food Bank, the world was changed by Covid 19. The ECC found themselves on the receiving end of donated food when Tipinawâw, the 24/7 temporary accommodation location was set up at the convention centre for vulnerable Edmontononians on October 30, 2020. The 24/7 accommodation space was a joint effort combining the efforts of the Bissell Centre, The Mustard Seed, Boyle Street Community Services, Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society, Homeward Trust and the City of Edmonton. This provided people experiencing homelessness with access to essential services over the winter months until it closed on April 30, 2021. The ECC says they served over 180,000 nutritious meals to Tipinawâw guests.
A month later, after the closure of the accommodation space, the culinary staff at the convention centre prepared 6,700 kilograms of food into 13,400 meals for the Second Helping Program as a thank you.
To discuss this long-standing partnership, we met with Melissa Radu, the Venue Sustainability Manager at Explore Edmonton.
Story of Giving - Edmonton Convention Centre
In 2010, the Edmonton Oilers Community Foundation (EOCF) joined Edmonton’s Food Bank’s Second Helping program, where prepared but not yet plated food is donated from Rogers Place and shared with our agency partners for use in meal and snack programs. The Food Bank works closely with Alberta Health Services to ensure the quality and safety of the shared food. The EOCF has since donated more than 38,101 kilograms of food from Rogers Place, and $100,000 worth of food in October 2020!
Thanks to the ongoing partnership with the EOCF and the Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club, we have also received generous financial support for reefer trucks that keep donated food cool and safe for community distribution. We caught up with their current executive director, Natalie Minckler, about the long-standing partnership between the EOCF and Edmonton's Food Bank.
Story of Giving - Edmonton Oilers Community Foundation
Martin Garber-Conrad, CEO of the Edmonton Community Foundation, relates the history of the Beyond Food program and his foundation’s involvement. Edmonton’s Food Bank conducted a survey in 2015 and learned that clients were poorly connected to other social services. To build better connections between clients and services, the Beyond Food program opened in the Annex building in 2017. Martin shares the story of how the Edmonton Community Foundation wanted to support Beyond Food since its beginning.
Story of Leadership - Edmonton Community Foundation
Chapter Seven - Agencies
One of our many agency partners is Operation Friendship Seniors Society (OFSS). They serve seniors in need over 55 years of age through their drop-in centre and provide information about affordable non-institutional housing options. Operation Friendship relies on the Food Bank to provide healthy, nutritional meals in the drop-in centre where they can also get a cup of coffee or tea and socialize with the other seniors. We caught up with Jimmy Morrison, their Community Relations Supervisor, who said that a smile and a thank you are the greatest rewards that you will receive when working for an agency like Operation Friendship.
Did you know, long-time volunteer and friend of Edmonton’s Food Bank, Janet Hughes was involved with Operation Friendship when she worked on the Pioneer Place project? Jimmy also mentions that like their seniors, Janet was a pioneer.
Story of Service - Operation Friendship Seniors Society
During 2020, we encountered a global pandemic and like many local businesses and organizations, Edmonton’s Food Bank had to adapt. The Food Bank saw many changes to its operations, including reducing the number of volunteers in our warehouse, ensuring proper food handling, and fluctuation in our distribution model as some community organizations had to close, accommodate and reopen. “I think it just speaks to our ability to be flexible and resilient with whatever is hitting us,” said Marjorie Bencz.