2 years and counting…counting food that is!

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I started working here near the end of February 2008 and began my first project a month later: the hamper audit. The main reason I enjoy this project is because it’s fascinating to track each and every item that is distributed in hampers for families of one to four persons when we open and when we close. Tracking all these items helps us have a comprehensive list of what may have been in a hamper on any given day. This helps us identify and track trends in donations and demand, and better understand what we are distributing each day. But creating these lists is only half the project; the other half involves organizing each item in groups to determine how nutritious our hampers are, based on Canada’s Food Guide values.

For any item to be accepted into one of the food groups it has to meet certain nutritional requirements. Though most items are easy to categorize such as a broccoli florets and yogurt, there are more “difficult” foods that require some evaluation. One example of a “difficult food” is crackers, which the Food Bank has been consistently had available for many weeks now. Crackers are a simple snack and are generally acceptable for anyone to eat, but can be high in sodium. This presents a challenge, as the Food Guide encourages food choices to be low in calories, fat, sugar and sodium. As a result I need to read the label to make an educated decision on whether the crackers are a grain serving or an extra since the food guide recommends minimizing sodium in your diet.

Nevertheless I’m not here to give a lesson on nutrition; instead this blog will share some of the 2009 statistics I have collected doing the hamper audit. One thing to note is that these statistics are a result of many wonderful donations, and Raymond’s (our warehouse coordinator) excellent predictions with his quotas. Luckily these factors seem to work well together, as our program has been able to consistently distribute an average of three to five days worth of food in almost all food categories.

So now our 2009 hamper nutrition statistics… (Drum roll please)

  Grains Dairy Vegetables and Fruit Meat (and alternatives)
One person 5.4 2.3 9.2 5.6
Two people 3.7 2.0 5.8 4.3
Three people 3.8 1.9 6.3 3.1
Four people 3.3 1.8 5.7 2.8
These figures represent the average number of days a hamper in 2009 would last for each family size, based on the number of daily recommended servings for each food group from Canada’s Food Guide values.

On average we’re hitting at least the bottom range of our three to five-day target. However this is just a glimpse at what our hampers were able to provide on average throughout the entire year. Obviously some days are better than others, and some months are lower than others. So on that note, let’s take a brief look at the overall best month and overall worst month in terms of hamper nutrition.

Best month in 2009: January

It’s incredible to think that in January 2009 when we were breaking records for the most number of hampers packed in a single day we were also distributing our best overall hampers! That month we distributed 3168 hampers to 2620 households representing over 6500 people. This is amazing, especially considering that this months averages were a few points higher in each food category for each family size! This provides a heart-warming reflection: when there were many patrons in need of food assistance, there was an astounding amount of nutritious food to match the demand.  However, there are always seasonal fluctuations in supply as we were reminded of that again in February.

Worst month in 2009: February

Sadly when the record number of hampers kept growing, our nutritious food supplies couldn’t match the trend. During this month the averages for each food category fell significantly below our overall annual averages for the majority of family sizes. Less food came in while we distributed 3057 hampers to 2651 households representing over 6300 households.

Our next “worst” competitor is June which was the second worst overall month for each family size, except fours where it tragically fell to the bottom. During June 2009 we distributed 2991 hampers to 2711 households representing over 6400 people. One thing that contributes to June’s lower overall nutrition is that at this time in the year our non-perishable donations tend to decrease in quantity as it is the low point between food drives and the growing season is only just getting started.  Once July starts then more local produce gets donated and flowing through the Food Bank’s industry and community contacts.

As an organization that relies on the generous donations of businesses and the local community, our hampers will always have shortfalls. We have tremendous support but it does not always match the number of people coming to us evenly.  Sometimes we have more food than people, sometimes we get close to having more people coming to us than food to give them.  Thankfully we have never completely run out of food but we’ve come close and one hamper one week is never the same as one the following week.

Though some of these challenges are easier to manage and resolve than others (I’ll teach you some of the ‘tricks of the trade’ in my next post “Where we go from here”) some are with us to stay. So I hope you’re looking forward to a discussion of some of our obvious gaps, the ways we attempt to boost food categories when donations are low, and the challenges or limitations all emergency food programs face.

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