Frank Bucholtz remembers how bad it was 30 years ago.
The B.C. unemployment rate was between 14 and 15 per cent, 30 per cent for people aged 15-19.
Surrey alone had 19,000 unemployed.
Rising food costs and high interest rates worked collectively to stress those already on the economic margins.
“It was pretty grim,” says Bucholtz, now the editor of The Langley Times.
Bucholtz, a Surrey Leader reporter in the ’80s writing on the economic woes, had his own five shifts a week reduced to four in early 1983 when he first penned a story with the headline: “Food bank in operation.”
The story was published on Wednesday, March 9 – one week after “a food bank for the underemployed” opened at Evergreen Mall on Fraser Highway and 152 Street.
“Donations to the food bank have been coming in steadily,” he wrote. “Many individuals, service clubs and churches are pitching in to help out.”
The phone number listed at the end of the story was 581-5443 (the same one as today, minus the 604 prefix).
Photo: Barry Shiles
Among those initially pitching in was Barry Shiles, a member of the North Surrey Lions Club, which donated a $558 cheque to cover the first month’s operating expenses.
The now-retired 45-year Safeway veteran and former food bank board member says the society, run by “working stiffs,” struggled for legitimacy early on, and didn’t develop a business model until years later. It was meant to be temporary emergency measure to give people a cushion until the economic cloud had lifted.
“If you had a job back then, you couldn’t come,” he says. “It was so hard back then. People came in hungry. We bought food and fed them. We can’t argue with that.”
At the time, the food bank served 200-300 clients per month.
A place to call home
The Surrey Self-Help Society for the Underemployed, the core organizing committee of the food distribution centre, was formed by a coalition of churches and individuals that gathered at the (former) North Surrey United Church, 13905 108 Ave.
It became a registered non-profit society on June 27, 1983, three months after the food bank opened.
Its suggested services would be comprehensive: A job exchange program based on a barter system; a food co-op; counseling for the unemployed; a drop-in centre (based in Oak Avenue United Church, 12740 102 Ave.); low-cost recreational activities; child care for single parents looking for work;, workshops for job-seekers; and a food bank.
In a relatively short time, while the other services petered out, the focus remained on the food bank, which soon moved to an empty plant bulb warehouse near 100 Avenue and King George Highway.
The donor was Pan American Nursery Products, now located at 152 Street and 72 Avenue.
Although space was limited, it was welcome.
“For many years that food bank was utilizing the space for the pricey sum of a $1 per year – and we were grateful to have a location that we could afford,” says 1991-2000 board (then society) member and current Surrey Christmas Bureau president Allan Keel.
“Having a permanent location was an amazing step forward.”
But by the late 1980s, due to financial troubles, the food bank was nearly shut down – at a time when the number of clients had grown to 2,500 per month.
On the brink of bankruptcy
Jay Redmond doesn’t mince his words describing the situation when he joined the newly designated Surrey Food Bank (SFB) board in 1991.
“Cramped, small, crowded, difficult, broke.”
Indeed, the society was virtually bankrupt at the turn of the decade – only to be bailed out by Richmond philanthropist Milan Ilich, who passed away in 2011.
The food bank had just moved to the strip mall across the street from its current location, and shortly thereafter into one-third of its present building. (Occupation of the whole 8,700 square feet and a renovation would come in the mid-1990s).
Leader file photo: The Surrey Food Bank moved to Whalley in the early 1990s.
With its ongoing financial difficulties, a SFB Foundation was set up to fundraise and have oversight on spending – to the point of its being, as Redmond describes it, the food bank’s banker.
“(They were in) such dire straits that we basically paid their monthly allowance. We treated it like a business – the only way it would be able to survive.”
Redmond says the problem was that in early years, however noble their intentions, food bank organizers didn’t look far ahead, since the sentiment was that the food distribution was a temporary measure.
The monthly stipend the foundation gave the food bank remained constant during each year’s financial peaks and valleys, making it possible to pay for rent, staff, fuel and food and have a bit left over for future use.
The foundation canvassed local businesses for support, solicited the public for donations, ran pet-photos-with-Santa events at Art Knapp’s, staffed a city recycling depot with food bank volunteers (in return for money to the foundation), and organized the first Christmas in July dinner and auction.
Within a few years, those annual dinners were raising $30-50,000, up from $10-15,000 when they first started.
Slowly, the SFB became more financially stable, and the foundation began to back off as the food bank itself took over most of the fundraising duties.
The late 1990s and onward were periods of further expansion, fundraising and services.
Executive director Robin Campbell (nee Sobrino) led the way from 1998-2006 with then-director of development Marilyn Herrman, who suggested a new business model that included the idea that volunteers and staff take part in fundraising and be accountable for money spent.
Food bank events carried over, evolved, or were replaced: Hike for Hunger, Breakfast with the Bank, show-and-shines and other fundraisers made the best possible use of available time and resources.
Herrmann, the food bank’s executive director since 2006, says the SFB’s services changed in the late 1990s to meet the needs of vulnerable groups.
Photo by Boaz Joseph: Surrey Food Bank executive director Marilyn Herrmann.
“It was more than just handing out food, it was addressing specific needs of specific target groups.”
Service additions included a community kitchen, the Tiny Bundles program for babies and expectant moms, and Hamper to Your Home, which delivers food to people with mobility issues.
Currently, of the 14,000 clients now served each month, 41 per cent are children and infants. One-third are single-parent families. About eight per cent are seniors, who along with immigrants, are a growing priority for the food bank.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the generosity of the community.
Leafing through a book of faded yellow tax receipts from 1988, Herrmann notes some vintage generosity: $20 from Linda Spek, $100 from Brian Gorrick, $442 from Westcoast Telemarket (repeat donors), $13.20 from Chug-A-Lug Brew, a voided $750 donation from Mr. Farmanixx (sic) replaced in kind with 500 cucumbers, $1 from Don Knight (the same name as the late city council candidate), and $12 plus a box of groceries from Cloverdale Old Age Pensioners Branch 42.
Today, support from the general public is still the food bank’s bread and butter. Sixty per cent of donations come from individuals. In 2012, 1,458 names were added to the list of new donors to the food bank, and 2,000 tax receipts were mailed out last Christmas.
Herrmann says it’s important to honour the individuals, companies and foundations to give to the food bank, which has been part of the community for 30 years – not to mention the thousands of volunteers that have come through the doors.
Having grown exponentially from its humble beginnings to meet the rising need, the SFB is currently looking for a new larger permanent home.
“There will always be people who will need emergency food,” says Herrmann. “As long as people need us, we will be here.”
For more information about the Surrey Food Bank, call 604-581-5443 or visit www.surreyfoodbank.org
Surrey Food Bank timeline
• March 2, 1983 – Opens distribution centre at Evergreen Mall;
• June 27, 1983 – Becomes a registered charity: THE Surrey Self Help Society for the Underemployed;
• About 1984 (est.) – Moves to a plant bulb warehouse;
• Late 1980s – Hires first paid staff member;
• 1989-91 – Food bank near bankrupcy; is kept alive by philanthropist Milan Ilich and other donors;
• 1991 – Re-named Surrey Food Bank; moves across the street to its present location at 10732 City Pkwy.; Hike for Hunger begins
• 1993 – Surrey Food Bank Society forms;
• 1995-96 – SFB occupies its entire building and makes a major renovation;
• 2001 – Tiny Bundles program for babies begins;
• 2002 – Breakfast with the Bank replaces Christmas in July;
• 2006 – Hamper to Your Home program makes its first delivery;
• Present – Focuses on services for the next growing wave of clients: seniors; the SFB is also looking for a new facility that would be three times larger than its current location at 10732 City Pkwy. in North Surrey.
Share your story!
It’s taken thousands of volunteers, supporters, donors, and clients to make the Surrey Food Bank what it is today. To celebrate, the food bank wants to honour those who have helped make a difference.
Do you have a great story to share about how the Surrey Food Bank helped change your life?
If you were a client, donor, staff member or volunteer over the past 30 years, please send your story and contact information to email@example.com, or fax to 604-588-8697.
For more information, call 604-581-5443.