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It Takes More than Food to Make an Impact

You don't need to search far to see an article or news story discussing the growing need in Vancouver. We've seen an increasing dependence on food banks and social support services in the years following the pandemic, with record-breaking costs for food and housing driving people to the tipping point in their finances. Despite this relentless growth, the Greater Vancouver Food Bank (GVFB) has kept up with the skyrocketing need due to our transparent and tactical approach to the non-profit work we do.

When I joined the organization in 2018, the GVFB served 6,000 – 7,000 people per month and supported about 75 Agencies. Five years later, we support more than 16,000 people per month and support a growing number of community agencies, with 130+ currently registered. Not only are we supporting more people and Agencies, but we're also doing a better job of it than we were before.

GVFB CEO, David Long, and I have learned a lot in our 5+ years here, applying a strategic business perspective to every corner of this non-profit organization that so many people rely on. While our actions were often against the grain, our changes to the GVFB have led to a resilient and proactive operational structure that enables us to support the thousands of people we do daily, accepting new clients while other food banks must turn them away.

Four fundamental changes have led to the GVFB being a proactive organization rather than a reactive one. Through these four goals, we clarify our mission, provide healthy food, and make a real impact for those in need.

Prioritizing Healthy Food

In 2021, the GVFB stopped accepting food donations and food drives from the public. Instead, we focused on stewarding our donors and using the funds to purchase and acquire fresh, healthy food that would provide proper nutrients to our clients. Shifting away from the Kraft Dinner and high-sodium dry and canned products, we can ensure those in need get food that genuinely benefits them. Many people who use food banks struggle with poor health, often managing multiple health conditions; everyone benefits from great nutrition, particularly those who are fighting short- or long-term illnesses.

By educating our donors on the reasons behind our shift away from food drives, we were able to promote the value of a monetary donation, leveraging our 2:1 buying power through industry relationships.

The Value of Our People

Fostering a solid and dedicated team of staff and volunteers has been a pivotal change in the operations of the GVFB. Once David and I began to assemble a strong leadership team, we could spend more time building a framework of support as an investment in our staff, which in turn has deepened their investment in us. Many charities suffer from chronic turnover and can never gain traction or build scope because their staff can't afford to stay. That costs you in the end as a charity, and we could not continue to expand and meet the growing need in our communities without relying on our passionate team. We have now been named one of BC's top employers for three years in a row, and we are proud to be a living wage employer. The value of people extends well beyond our hired team to our amazing volunteers, who choose to come back and give their time year after year. The GVFB is supported by a vast network of volunteers who supply over 50,000 hours yearly!

Operations Are Everything

Creating more efficient operations has allowed the organization to distribute a better quality and quantity of food than ever before. In 2023, we distributed 9.1 M lb of food, with 54% directly to clients and 46% to our Agencies. We often say it takes more than food because, at the end of the day, operations are how we get better food to more people. We now have a full cold chain, including a fleet of refrigerated trucks for food transportation and a total of 116,992 cubic feet of refrigerated storage space. That is an 814% increase since 2018, allowing us to accept large-scale food donations and enable distribution for thousands of people. Depending on the donation size, we can also share farm fresh produce with other food banks that don't have the cooler space that we do. They love this opportunity to pick up a smaller amount of fresh food that they can safely store and distribute to their clients and agencies.

Stewardship and Financial Transparency

One of the most impactful changes David and I have made to the GVFB is the focus on our stewardship plan. By properly thanking and acknowledging every donation, we have built a robust network of monthly, annual, community events and industry donors who empower us to impact the lives we support. Through our creative and diligent approach to stewardship, alongside many industry-leading fundraising methods and events, the GVFB has consistently raised the funds we need to ensure our reliable and sustainable operation for the foreseeable future. All of this means that we can confidently continue our mission of providing healthy food to those in need.

About the Author:
Cynthia Boulter is the Chief Operating Officer of the Greater Vancouver Food Bank, supporting a growing average of 16,000+ monthly clients and 130+ Agencies. Cynthia has had a fast-paced and challenging career in people leadership and team building, business development and key account management, client services, and P&L management, working with some of Canada's most respected organizations across several industries. Her experience includes companies such as Morneau Shepell, TELUS, Accenture Business Services for Utilities/BC Hydro, the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan Board, and Mackenzie Financial Corporation.

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