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Food banks & food distribution

Information for food banks and food distribution agencies about the risk of COVID-19 spread to your volunteers and clients.
April 23, 2020: The advice below is based on current recommendations and may change. The most up-to-date information is provided in daily briefings by the PHO and Minister of Health. Please reference materials and recent news updates:

Perishable food recovery

Some foods, like fresh fruits and vegetables, milk and meats, have been previously displayed to customers and then culled. Members will pick up these items daily and bring them to their food bank for immediate donation to our clients.

  • There has been no evidence of transmission of COVID-19 spread through food.
  • Foods received that are already packaged are lower risk. These would include packaged salads, milk, bagged vegetables or fruits and packaged meats. These foods would not have been directly handled by any customers.
  • For foods like fresh lettuce, or bulk apples etc. that may have been touched or handled by people in the store, there is no way to know if they have been exposed to an infected customer or staff member. These foods are still considered low risk because the virus is not likely to be present and will die off in hours to days. 
  • We recommend that food banks advise clients receiving these foods about the exposure and that you cannot assess the risk. The virus only survives a matter of hours/days on surfaces. 
  • We advise clients to wash foods with potable cold running water and reassure them that there have been no documented cases of COVID-19 from eating foods.
  • Fresh vegetables like potatoes or cabbages that will be cooked before eating are low risk. Normal cooking temperatures will kill the coronavirus.

Physical distancing for 
volunteers and clients at food banks

Minimizing client and volunteer risk:

  • If clients and volunteers are asymptomatic, the risk of transmission of COVID-19 is very low. 
  • If volunteers are symptomatic, they should stay home. 
  • If clients are symptomatic, they should limit their interactions with others. This includes avoiding crowding and maintaining a distance of at least 2 metres between people. Poster
  • It may be difficult to maintain a distance of 2 metres with your clients. Some options would be to prepare hampers ahead of time for clients to pick up. Consider having clients wait outside where the risk of transmission is lower. Stagger pickup to avoid crowding. 
  • Have handwashing stations or hand sanitizers available.  
  • We do not advise wearing masks for volunteers. This can result in accidental touching of eyes or nose when adjusting the mask that can help spread infection.

Best practices for charities 
offering meals for clients in need during the COVID-19 pandemic

Clients in need include those of low income, persons who are unsheltered, or facing other life challenges preventing them from being able to purchase healthy nutritious foods. Clients in need can include children of low-income families who are disproportionately affected by hunger and lack of access to food.

Pre-packaged meals are the best option for clients to limit gatherings inside the dining areas. A grab and go type of meal such as brown bag meals or boxed lunches are both acceptable. Take-away meals will allow clients to leave the premises quickly so that gatherings do not occur. Charitable agencies must also ensure physical distancing with a 2 metre separation is practiced in lines and between volunteers, staff and clients.

The following guidance offers recommendations for physical distancing and meal services.

Physical Distancing

Challenges for charitable organizations include lack of volunteers to oversee line-ups, the numbers of clients who need their services, and lack of awareness in some clients about requirements to control COVID-19.    

Charities can employ physical distancing requirements in line-ups by:

  • Using markings along the sidewalk (e.g., tapes or cones) to ensure a 2 metre spacing and visible waiting areas between clients where practical.
  • Ensuring there are secured alcohol based hand rubs available for clients to use while waiting in line.
  • Offering services at staggered times and extending the service times to reduce crowding
  • Inquiring with schools or other closed community sites if these can be used to serve meals
  • Using tickets as a method for letting clients know when they access a meal (for example: blue tickets, meal at 3pm; red tickets meal at 4pm; green tickets meal at 5pm). This option may also reduce lines outside the charity.

Meal Services

  • Pre-packaged meals are the best option for clients to limit gatherings inside the dining areas. A grab and go type of meal such as brown bag meals or boxed lunches are both acceptable. 
  • Servers who are providing charitable meals should practice frequent hand-washing and practice physical distancing when possible. 
  • Access to alcohol based hand rubs must be available for clients and for servers. 
  • Signs that reinforce hand-washing messages and physical distancing would help educate clients that may not be aware of COVID-19 requirements.
  • When pre-packaged meals are served for take-away, servers can hand-out the meals in a way to minimize contact. For example,
    • Place the pre-packaged meal on a table, then step away before the client picks it up.
    • Ensure a 2 metre separation by using barriers or tape markings on the floor in a cafeteria style service
  • Staff and volunteers may dispense water/coffee/cream/milk from food containers for clients. Single use condiment packages should be provided to clients rather than allowing them to access (touch) any bulk food containers, e.g., salt/pepper/sugar/ketchup/mustard. Alternatively, staff and volunteers may dispense condiments from bulk food containers for clients.

Other resources


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