In recognition of International Women's Day on March 8, the Airdrie City View is profiling four women this week who hold local leadership positions. Our four-article series will focus on how these women have helped their respective organizations navigate the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Whether it's in the realm of business, politics, charity or public education, these women have exemplified local leadership and demonstrated their ability to make decisions on behalf of their organizations in the face of looming uncertainty.
We are kicking off our series with a profile on Lori McRitchie, the executive director of the Airdrie Food Bank.
As the executive director for one of Airdrie’s busiest local charities, it would be an understatement to say Lori McRitchie has been working hard this past year.
In 2020, Airdrie’s food bank saw unprecedented demand as the COVID-19 pandemic and business restrictions wreaked havoc on the economy and impacted people’s livelihoods, leading to increased food insecurity.
“Initially, we were just slammed,” said McRitchie, who has been the head of the local charity since 2006. “People came to pick up hampers and we adjusted on the fly.”
According to McRitchie, the pandemic meant the Airdrie Food Bank had to shift its operations significantly and often throughout the year. She said the food bank changed how it delivered food to clients, creating a drive-through hamper-pick-up system and modifying its front-end pantry program.
In order to ensure the food bank could remain open in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak among staff members, McRitchie said the board of directors created two teams of staff – one team that would be on-site, while the others would support operations from home.
“The restrictions just kept coming and there was a lot more fear, and no ability to know what this all meant or what it would look like, when the pandemic was new,” she said. “I think we’ve come a long way in knowing how to deal with things – we realized we couldn’t operate in the same way anymore.”
After the first shocking weeks of the pandemic, McRitchie said demand started to decrease, as government programs kicked in and laid-off workers were able to start collecting the Canada Emergency Response Benefit or other benefits.
However, the food bank’s funding had already suffered a huge blow in the cancellation of the 2020 Shamrock Shimmy – the food bank’s biggest fundraising event of the year. Later in the year, the food bank would have to cancel a city-wide food drive that was set to take place in the fall.
The pandemic also limited the charity’s number of volunteers, according to McRitchie.
“What happened with COVID is we went down to 25 per cent of our volunteer pool,” she said. “People were isolating or staying at home. There were some still willing to come in. Now we had half our staff on-site and a quarter of our volunteers, so it meant we had to work really hard to maintain service levels.”
As the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic once again caused business closures and lay-offs toward the end of 2020, McRitchie said demand for the charity's services shot up once again, meaning the food bank ended 2020 with a 25 per cent increase in clientele, and a 95 per cent increase in first-time users.
However, throughout the pandemic, McRitchie said the Airdrie community has continued to support the food bank.
“Food banks are only as good as their community is strong,” she said. “We are neighbours helping neighbours. My role is to build relationships and encourage community partners, whether individuals, businesses, organizations or agencies, to help those who live right next door to them. Without the community, we wouldn’t be able to do any of the work we do.
“I’m proud to be a part of this team and to have been able to support our community in a time that nobody anticipated.”