If you have been to a Safeway store anywhere in Western Canada in the last 21 years, you have seen the care packages in clear plastic bags lined up at the till. Shoppers can purchase $5 or $10 packs and put them in a bin that’s later picked up by a local food bank.

I work as a part-time cashier at Safeway and find customers comment regularly on the care packages. They often wonder why certain foods are chosen, and have strong opinions about foods that should be added.

Here’s what I’ve found: The Safeway Care Package program started in 1996 and provides food banks with a regular supply of their most needed items, including the Compliments brand of macaroni and cheese (since it encourages clients to add milk which is also an additional need), tomato sauce, pasta, flakes of chicken (as a source of protein), beans, peanut butter (also an excellent source of protein along with the beans) and canned fruits and vegetables of several kinds.

The goal is to meet the Canadian Food Guide in the easiest way, non-perishable form.

What shoppers might not know is that the items inside those care packages are carefully selected by Safeway based on what is needed by food banks, according to Tuesday O’Krainetz, community investment coordinator at Sobeys Inc., which now owns Safeway.

“Any of the major food banks across Western Canada will have a list of what their most needed items are, and generally they stay the same. Clients will usually want whatever they can make a full meal out of and whatever is going to last a long time,” she says.

One common misconception among Safeway shoppers seems to be that these care packages look non-nutritional and don’t meet the Canadian Food Guide standards.

O’Krainetz argues Safeway care packages have good nutritional value in them, despite the fact that there can’t be any dairy, meat or fresh products included. These items are packaged together because they can appropriately and easily be prepared together for a quick and healthy meal.

The Sobeys warehouse produces approximately 25,000 Food Bank Care Packages every month which are distributed to all 180 Safeway stores across Western Canada. Interestingly, the program employs young autistic adults from the Ability Hub — an organization aiming to increase the independence of adolescents diagnosed with autism — to assemble and package the care packages you see at your local Safeway stores.

Safeway stores do not make a profit from these packages; instead their costs cover the manufacturing of the bags such as the shipping, labeling and plastic packaging involved, says Cynthia Thompson from Sobeys Inc.

The Calgary Food Bank’s (CFB) food industry coordinator, Cindy Drummond, emphasizes that the care packages purchased at the grocery store don’t go into somebody’s hamper as one entire package, because not every client can eat everything. Sometimes the CFB has a surplus of one item, like peas for instance, and wants to ensure they aren’t putting things unnecessarily into people’s hampers.

For that reason, all care packages they receive from the retail stores are ripped open, sorted and reassembled to be distributed in boxed hampers to families who visit the CFB.

Safeway care packages contain only canned and boxed items because they are almost always guaranteed to withstand any weight, pressure and long distances, unlike juice boxes, produce or soft foods.

The Calgary Food Bank’s Cindy Drummond holds a couple of the care packages that are to be ripped open and sorted into hampers by the food bank’s warehouse staff and volunteers. Photo by Malak Amche.

Special hampers for gluten, nut or salt-sensitive clients are also available only at the CFB and upon request, affirms Drummond.

“So people with things like Celiac disease or anyone going through kidney dialysis can pick up a hamper for that at the [Calgary Food Bank],” she adds.

Generally speaking however, the CFB helps approximately 250 to 300 families per day according to Drummond. “That’s a lot of families,” she says.

Last year, more than $608,000 in packages were sold across Western Canada which equates to 240,000 lbs of food, and in Calgary, $140,000, which equates to approx 56,000 lbs of food to the CFB.

Furthermore, in 2017 a total of 54,650 of the $5 care packs and 28,219 of the $10 care packs were sold in Calgary alone.

For those shoppers who want food bank clients to receive fresh fruits and vegetables, the answer is simple: write a cheque. There are yearly cheque stand campaigns where customers are asked to donate directly to the CFB.

“We prefer that they donate cash so that companies are then able to purchase those additional or special items that are not found in the pre-packs [like] milk, cheese, bread and produce,” says O’Krainetz.

mamche@cjournal.ca

Editor: Sarah Allen | sallen@cjournal.ca