Veteran's food bank in Edmonton struggling to keep up with bare shelves

More than 1,100 veterans from around the province are members at one of the association’s centres, in Edmonton at 18504 111 St.

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A warm “thank you for your service,” help filling out a Veterans Affairs form and a box of grocery staples — a veteran can get it all at the Veterans Association in Edmonton.

More than 1,100 veterans from around the province are members at one of the association’s centres, in Edmonton at 18504 111 St. or the first one in Calgary, or the newer ones in Grande Prairie or Lethbridge.

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Of those members, 168 receive regular hamper boxes — currently, about one-quarter of them are on the Edmonton area hamper list, said Edmonton operations manager Bob Cotton.

“I think that we are really just touching the tip of the iceberg — I think there’s a lot of veterans that are too proud to come to a ‘food bank,’” he said.

As an Air Force veteran himself, Cotton said there’s something about showing up at a civilian food bank that may not work for some Canadian veterans.

Call it pride, or the military tradition of taking care of others.

“If I went to a civilian food bank and there was a family standing behind me wanting to get food, I’d move out of the way,” Cotton said.

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The Veterans Association’s mandate is to address four key issues affecting veterans and their families — hunger, homelessness, isolation, and suicide.

Battalion banners line the interior. A huge Canadian flag hangs beside a massive banner adorned with the names of 158 Canadian veterans who didn’t come home from Afghanistan. Those numbers are dwarfed by the thousands lost to the aftermath of war — and the families hit by the emotional shrapnel that leaves invisible wounds, Cotton said.

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“We lose more veterans to PTSD from them not knowing where to get proper support,” Cotton said.

“We suffer from PTSD, but how does that affect the family?”

The centre can accept monetary donations, food donations, toiletries, paper goods, even diapers.

One recent donor brought in 3,000 kilograms of food from an organization that did a food drive for them.

From bags of rice and bags of diapers to a big printer and a walk-in freezer, almost everything in the building has been donated.

A pet care program means a veteran who has trouble buying dog chow or paying his bills can still get kibble, and take an ex-soldier’s best friend to the veterinarian.

Veterans Association of Edmonton's food bank
Volunteer Rick Maclagan works at the Veterans Association of Edmonton’s food bank on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023 in Edmonton. Photo by Greg Southam /Postmedia

And while a waggly dachshund or a calico cat might not meet the strictest definition of service animal, somehow they know when their veteran friends need some extra snuggles and purrs, Cotton said.

All of this is fuelled by donations. A volunteer makes the rounds to pet supply stores to pick up donated bags that may have burst open so they can’t be sold.

Veterans seeking training for employment may get a leg up with training costs.

The centre’s EVAC program provides emergency veteran assistance costs — a car payment here, a cellphone bill there. Rent. Gas.

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“We’ll pay a bill, that frees them to get caught up,” Cotton said.

Inquiries for help quickly lead to referrals for medical and mental health supports, or understanding assistance with paperwork.

The association also has staff on call 24/7 to provide assistance with urgent matters.

Centre volunteer Bill Raitt’s Thursday coffee group was a regular haunt of Willie “Bill” Adkins, who was the last surviving member of the Royal Regina Rifles of the Second World War.

Raitt signed up to volunteer at the Veterans Association when he was attending Adkins’ memorial service.

“I considered him a good friend, and I know this was his absolute favourite charity,” Raitt said.

“This place seems to be one of the best-kept secrets in the city,” said the Edmonton Fire Rescue Services veteran.

At a recent delivery to the Veterans’ Village, he handed out hamper boxes along with handshakes of appreciation.

“They were very grateful for the delivery. I thanked them all personally for their service,” Raitt said.

“It almost brings tears to my eyes—this country doesn’t treat our vets well enough, not by a long, long shot.”

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A meal is served at the centre’s peer support nights. It’s an opportunity for vets to “get together and just chat,” Cotton said.

Veterans Association of Edmonton's food bank
A large Canadian flag as well as a poster hang in the Veterans Association of Edmonton’s food bank that was donated by Judy Chan, the widow of Ken Chan, a veteran who committed suicide on the steps of the Alberta Legislature in 2019. Taken on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023 in Edmonton. Photo by Greg Southam /Postmedia

Those nights are less about talking about the triggering horrors of war and more about occupying the mind and enjoying camaraderie, Cotton said.

“We tell stories — some veterans just come and listen and don’t talk at all,” he said, adding that having veterans helping veterans makes a difference.

“People who understand, ‘My head hurts.’ They need that,” he said.

“And we finish off with something positive. Everyone leaves here feeling fairly good.”

They have a good partner in Edmonton’s Food Bank, Cotton said.

At any time, there’s three to five helpers and a combination of volunteers and staff keeping the place humming on one particular fuel.

“The compassion that we have for what we do,” Cotton said.

“What really makes this organization is the individuals themselves, and the individuals they work with.”

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