I run a pet food bank. I’ve been quiet long enough.
Hi my pet loving friends and supporters, It is not often that I feel called to put myself front and center, after reading the following increased demand for food banks article today on Castanet, I could no longer stay quiet!
This piece written by me is a direct conduit to my heart it is my inner most thoughts and feelings around this issue. Thank you all for reading as reading is feeding and as always I appreciate your support. Please sit and pet your furry friend for me as you read this. Hang on, I’m fired up. Together we can change the world.
Three years ago, in December 2019, I met a homeless man and his dog in downtown Kelowna. That chance encounter inspired me to start the Animal Food Bank shortly after. Originally just with my husband and I as volunteers, we embarked on a mission to end pet food insecurity.
I don’t think I knew what I was getting into. I don’t have a background in non-profits – nor did we even start out as an officially-registered one. My background is operationally fixing and scaling start-ups, and loving dogs – so I naively went into this endeavor thinking we were doing a great thing!
We were being another voice for the voiceless and one more voice makes it even louder! We were giving happy loved pets the opportunity to stay with their guardians and keep them out of shelters.
We were giving human food banks the opportunity to focus on people clients and we would focus on pet clients. And we were doing this with as much of a low-barrier model as possible so that pet food became the olive branch of trust with our clients and we could work with them, and other organizations, to change their life circumstances.
I assumed we were going to be welcomed in the sector with open arms – because, after all, we are all working towards the same goal right? Making lives better for pets?
What I didn’t know then, that I know now, is the competitiveness of the sector and how that would become our greatest challenge. We were not welcomed. We were a threat and a pawn.
I just wanted to feed dogs (and cats) in need
Launching in December 2019 with only a facebook page, and a partner pet store in Kelowna, we embarked on our mission to feed pets in need. It quickly grew. By February of 2020 we had opened what is now our busiest branch in my hometown of Winnipeg, MB.
Shortly after that we expanded our services through the Okanagan and developed proprietary software meant to be used by anyone (person or org) operating or looking to operate a pet food bank in their area. By March of 2020 we were dealing with upwards of 100 requests for help a week.
Scalable, repeatable and low-barrier (for both volunteers and clients), we built our model with a currency of gratitude and abundance.
Here we are, three years later, with over 100 volunteers (myself included), having completed over 10,000 deliveries, having provided over 600,000 meals, in three provinces, with goals to expand across Canada in 2023. I have become the pet food bank expert in Canada.
Covid, inflation, the economy and the Animal Food Bank
Covid hit shortly after we started our first branch. We quickly realized we needed to be a registered organization but that a charitable status would not work because it was not only too costly and time consuming to achieve, but it would restrict our ability to provide instant services and fill gaps where we find them.
The pet food bank sector is so new, few were doing a good, consistent job but more importantly a far enough reaching job of providing services, that the problem of pet food insecurity was not understood.
We became a registered non-profit in April of 2020 and watched the need for our services skyrocket. Covid, unemployment, poverty, inflation, mental illness, addiction, homelessness – just a few factors we deal with every day when operating our animal food bank.
When the federal government announced increased funding for food banks at the onset of Covid in April of 2020, I thought to myself this is great and we can do so much with some of the funding to help not only pets, but their guardians too!
Except, pet food is not a funded service for people food banks – meaning not only are people food banks not required to provide pet food, there are no rules around how it is to be provided if they do provide it, nor are they permitted to buy pet food through their donations. This meant no funding for us.
Why animal food banks are needed
In an average month, operating four full-service branches, we see 500 requests for help and deliver 20,000 meals. We see the same trends that people food banks do. Many of our clients are employed. Many do not request monthly and only access us as needed. Many are struggling just to make ends meet not being able to keep up with the rising costs of living.
We recently surveyed our clients and without our services, and 66% of respondents no longer had to choose between feeding themselves or their pets, and 56% said they didn’t have to surrender a pet because of our services. This affirmed what we already suspected – our work is not only important, it is necessary.
What sets us apart from people food banks, other pet food banks, animal shelters and rescues?
1. The pet is our client – we are focused on the pet and their individual needs
2. We are vigilant about food allergies – we will purchase food if needed to accommodate an allergy as we do not want to provide food that will cause distress for the pet
3. We don’t break down bags of food – many human food banks break down bags of pet food into smaller portions to reach more clients. We always try to provide enough dry pet food to last a month or more, limiting tummy upset for the pet and worry for the human. The BC SPCA states in this article they provide a weeks worth of food – how does that help?
4. We are low-barrier – we don’t believe in having a human, down on their luck, have to jump through hoops to get pet food. We believe the pet food is an olive-branch building trust for that human to let us help their pet and the gateway for us to begin to understand why they need our help to begin with. Pet food insecurity is a symptom of a much bigger problem.
5. We are a delivery based model – our client demographic, much like those who access human food banks, do not usually have a mode of transportation to pick up supplies. Our delivery based model allows our volunteer drivers to meet the client and connect with them, and spot other areas where we can step in an help (like leashes, collars, beds etc)
6. We are not an animal welfare agency or rescue – our mission is to keep happy, loved pets with their guardians and out of shelters and rescues. In over 10,000 deliveries I can count on one hand the number of times we have been concerned for the welfare of a pet (and at that point we do call in the help of animal welfare agencies).
7. We don’t limit the number of times someone can access our food bank – I had a conversation with the Winnipeg Humane Society last year in which they told me their pet food bank wasn’t meant to provide services long term to clients. I asked them what they were doing to prevent their clients from needing their services – because handing them a bag of pet food doesn’t make them not poor.
The reality of collaboration in the sector
When I started AFB I had a hypothesis that pet lovers like me, would be willing to set aside their judgment for what they thought a human was doing wrong, in order to help that humans pet.
It has been proven correct. We have a small army of volunteers across three provinces who work tirelessly to feed pets in need. Individuals and businesses step up and step forward to help us help pets in need. We aligned with like-minded grassroots organizations like ours, including the Four Paws Food Bank in Kamloops, Parachute For Pets in Calgary, and the Cranbrook Pet Food Bank in Cranbrook.
We practice what we preach by sharing resources, including pet food, to rescues and organizations across Western Canada whenever possible – especially those serving remote communities who hold a very special place in my heart. We have become one of the few organizations in Canada that can receive truck-loads of pet food from large corporate donations, that we can then distribute to smaller organizations (the last donation of 40 pallets of pet food to us into Kelowna, for example, has helped over fifteen organizations). It takes a village after all.
Collaboration at the community level is never lacking. We love other peoples pets like we love our own, and we stand up to help them. But what about collaboration with organizations funded to provide animal welfare services?
We quickly caught the attention of SPCA’s and Humane Societies across Canada. We had the amazing opportunity to work with Kate MacDonald when she was the CEO of the ON SPCA. A like-minded leader promoting collaboration and sharing of resources, I consider Kate a mentor. Upon seeing our pleas for help on the news, Kate reached out and arranged for a truck load (literal semi-truck load) of donations of pet food for us. She continues to be one of our strongest advocates to this day.
Hoping for the same collaboration, I reached out to Humane Canada in the Fall of 2020 as they were doing a campaign around raising money for the operation of pet food banks at the time. I offered to share our software, our model and our knowledge to help. My offer was refused.
In early 2020, we met with the BC SPCA and agreed to take over the distribution of pet food to community members in the Okanagan. Most people don’t know that the pet food donated by the general public to the SPCA generally cannot be used for shelter animals as they have proprietary contracts with pet food brands that require only their brands to be used in shelter.
In Manitoba, we also met with the Winnipeg Humane Society in hopes of a collaboration. Where they were dealing with a capacity for about forty or so requests a month to their Emergency Pet Food Bank, we were dealing with close to three hundred and so, in my mind, it made sense to collaborate.
However, I quickly learned the reality of these so-called collaborations. ONSPCA aside, the BC SPCA and the Winnipeg Humane Society refuses to provide any funding for our operations, while happily allowing us to carry to burden of providing the majority of the services, on the back of our volunteers.
While we don’t have any paid staff, we do have operational costs including storage, pet food and supplies, posters, business cards, etc. Storage is our biggest hurdle and the place we could use the most help with regarding funding.
Despite these organizations touting our partnerships to their donors, we have been continually met with resistance to funding – even during the floods and fires of 2021 in BC where my request for help from the BC SPCA, even in the form of pet food, was denied. Our team worked tirelessly, without sleep, for many days procuring and moving pet food (to the tune of 30,000 lbs) into BC from Alberta – with zero help from the organization out there telling the public to donate to them. This is not okay.
Most recently, and the catalyst for this article, the BC SPCA claims that the need for it’s pet food bank services in Kelowna, BC are on the rise. The problem with this is that we provide those services, not them, and they have not asked us for any statistics around this. Nor did they mention us as their community partner in the article.
It begs two questions:
The first – are they being transparent with their donors and the general public as to the nature and reality of their pet food bank in Kelowna, as well as where their donations go?
The second – are they being honest with community partners like us and being willing to reallocate monetary donations received through them to operate pet food banks, to organizations like us who actually do the work?
The time for action and change, is now
If we have been able to operate by donations up till this point , why speak up now?
First of all, transparency , if you are donating to help pet food banks with the BC SPCA , do you want to know how your funds are allotted?
When you donate towards a flood or a fire , do you want your funds used to feed pets impacted by that flood or fire?
Secondly, the need is so much greater than we are able to raise funds for, we are constantly scrambling to find more food, fund storage, etc. Our volunteers are burning out because they go above and beyond and often spend out-of-pocket to make sure animals get what they need.
Third, it’s deflating to think we are partnering with larger organizations like the BC SPCA, who promise to help us because we are helping them, only to have their provincial office continually and consistently fail to do so.
We get requests for help from all over Canada and all over the world, and know that we need to expand our services. How do we do that? Without funding, without help? And with partner organizations essentially stealing our donations by providing incomplete and missing information to their donors? It’s actions like this, especially by a “big player”, that breed distrust, competitiveness and silo’s in the non-profit sector. This is the opposite of what we need. It’s…shameful.
The importance of companion animals is well documented, as is the current crisis of over-capacity of shelters and rescues. Our services allow improved mental and physical health for pet guardians and help animal welfare organizations focus on sheltering and rehoming unwanted pets.
Let’s leave the SPCA’s and Humane Societies to do what they do best in advocating for and enforcing animal welfare; human food banks to do what they do best in providing food to humans in need; and animal food banks to do what we do best by preventing the surrender of pets due to lack of pet food.
Yes, effective change takes time, but the time for exploring options is over. We have a scalable, repeating, tried and tested method for not only providing food to pets in need, but shining light onto the root causes of the reasons the need exists to begin with. I would like nothing more than to drive AFB out of business.
The time for transparency from Humane Canada, the BC SPCA and Winnipeg Humane Society has arrived. We would love to move forward together, with them, but will no longer remain silent on, or accept that, this without financial support from them. Or, they need to be honest with their donors, the community and the general public when asking for donations for services they don’t actually offer.
Sign and share our petition, and let your voice be heard alongside ours. We are so much stronger together.