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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.
The advice below is based on current recommendations and may change. Please reference materials and recent updates from the Office of the Provincial Health Officer, Ministry of Health and BC Centre for Disease Control. 
December 9, 2020: Gathering and Events Order. Distribution of food and supplies to those in need are excluded from the Order, however, there are requirements for these activities specified in the Order:
  • Meal services to those in need for up to 50 people as long as they comply with part C of the Order.
  • Drive-through and drop-off of foods, clothing and items event may occur as long as they comply with part F of the Order.
Last updated: December 11, 2020 at 3:00 PM

Food banks
PHO Orders pertaining to food banks and food distribution under the Gathering and Events Order must be followed. Events requesting donated foods and supplies for those in need may occur as drive-through and drop-off at a designated location (except for private residence or vacation home) as long as:
  • Traffic moves in one direction with entrances and exits marked and controlled,
  • Patrons stay in their vehicle except to drop-off items, return to their vehicles, and do not congregate,
  • Patrons, staff and volunteers maintain 2 metre physical distancing or implement barriers,
  • The organizer of the event monitors the actions of patrons.

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.  
  • Non-surgical cloth masks are expected to be worn in areas where physical distancing cannot be maintained. They offer protection to the wearer and to others in limiting spread of respiratory droplets. More information about masks.

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.
Charities offering meals

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.

Per the Gathering and Events Order, indoor meals without charge for clients in need may be offered to up to 50 clients at one time as long as requirements under part C of the Order are followed. A summary of the Order for indoor meals is described below under Meal Services. 
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 best practices:
  • 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.
Indoor meal service requirements include:
  • A COVID-19 safety plan must be available and 
    • should specify the number of people who can be present in that space up to a maximum of 50 (allow 5 metre squared per person),
    • organizers must ensure that number of clients are monitored and the COVID-19 safety plan is followed,
  • Areas where congregation may occur is monitored and limited in outside areas, in line-ups and within the premises using markers, physical devices and by providing 2 metres of space between clients in those areas,
  • No more than six clients may sit together at a table, and there must be two metres between the chairs of groups of clients unless there is a physical barrier,  
  • Washroom facilities, hand-washing facilities, and hand sanitation supplies are provided,
  • Self-serve food and drink stations are equipped with hand-hygiene supplies, signs reminding clients to clean hands are posted, and high-touch surfaces at the station are frequently cleaned and sanitized,
  • Clients may not be replaced with other clients once the meal is over, 
  • Following the meal services the organizer must clean, sanitize and ventilate the premises before another meal service may occur,
  • Organizers must make every effort to collect names and contact information for clients attending the meal service, retain this information for 30 days, and then destroy the contact information, 
  • and others. 
Consult Section C of the Gathering and Events Order for the full requirements.

Food hampers

Food drives: COVID-19 guidance for food hamper donation activities

Collecting non-perishable foods (foods that do not require refrigeration) is a great way to help others in need. Whether you are participating in a school food drive, gathering items from households or helping at a charity or food bank, consider how you can keep yourself and others safe from COVID-19.

This is a great year to consider a monetary drive rather than a food drive. Many foodbanks appreciate monetary donations as it allows them to buy perishable food items like fresh fruit and vegetables.

Any agency hosting a food drive such as a food hamper donation activity takes responsibility to create a COVID-19 Safety Plan for their staff and volunteers.

Plans should address the four levels of controls explained by Worksafe BC: (1) elimination (e.g. reducing numbers of staff or volunteers); (2) engineering (e.g. installing barriers, increasing spaces); (3) administrative (e.g. creating sign-in lists, cleaning and disinfecting); (4) PPE (e.g. recommending wearing of masks and gloves).

Monetary donations

  • Monetary donation collections to support food banks in lieu of gatherings to create food hampers is another way students and volunteers can contribute.  Check with your local food bank how best to support them. Try to keep the handling of cash to a minimum by using a container to collect cash or setting up online contribution options.

Health information for volunteers and staff in all situations

  • All volunteers and staff are expected to conduct a health self-assessment prior to engaging in volunteer activities with others. Use the B.C. COVID-19 Self-Assessment Tool.
  • If you are unwell do not volunteer, do not go to work. Visit the COVID-19 testing page to see if COVID-19 testing is recommended.
  • At the site of the food drive, all volunteers and staff should be screened for COVID-19 symptoms (for e.g., by asking if they are experiencing symptoms). Anyone who is ill or has symptoms must put on a mask and go home.

If you are collecting food at a school

Follow school COVID-19 safety guidelines for your school. Guidance for schools is described here. Key areas of the COVID-19 safety plan include:

  • Persons coordinating food collections should collect the names of students, staff and volunteers, and provide them to the school administrator to make available to public health if needed.
  • Participating students should be from the same cohort (learning group) for volunteer group activities. Numbers of students, staff and other volunteers must not exceed the normal cohort (learning group) size.
  • If student volunteers come from different cohorts (learning groups), implement additional control measures: practice physical distancing during sorting and packing hampers and wear masks. Assign student volunteers from the same cohort to one activity and have this activity physically separated from other student volunteers and activities. For example, have one cohort unpacking food and another cohort packing hampers. Minimize the number of people as much as possible.
  • Choose a location that has adequate space for physical distancing between student cohorts and other volunteers (estimate 5m2 per person).
  • Maintain physical distancing of two metres between cohorts and individuals/volunteers.
  • Conduct activities in spacious areas or outdoors.
  • Implement cleaning and disinfection of high touch surfaces.
  • When physical distancing is not possible students and volunteers are expected to wear masks.
  • Practice frequent hand-washing. Avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth.

If you are collecting food for charities from private households or individuals create contactless opportunities for donations

  • Request donations ahead of time by phone or flyer and ask that donations be left on the front step at a specified time.
  • Provide paper bags for items to be placed in to minimize direct hand contact with food items.
  • Wash or sanitize hands after handling donated food items between households. Avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Set-up drive by locations where food can be dropped off .  Per the Gathering and Events Order, events reuesting donated foods and supplies for those in need may occur as drive-through and drop-off at a designated location (except for private residence or vacation home) as long as:
    • Traffic moves in one direction with entrances and exits marked and controlled,
    • Patrons stay in their vehicle except to drop-off items, return to their vehicles, and do not congregate,
    • Patrons, staff and volunteers maintain 2 metre physical distancing or implement barriers,
    • The organizer of the event monitors the actions of patrons.
  • Volunteers can pick up the food or supplies left on tables or placed into marked bins once the donors have left.  Or, have a volunteer wearing a mask able to accept donations directly from a donors’ vehicle, either passed through the window or taken from the trunk, so the driver doesn’t need to exit the vehicle. 
  • Regularly clean and disinfect drop-off tables and frequently touched surfaces.
  • When canvassing door to door, knock and step back. Wear a mask and keep the mask on when talking to others.

When repackaging food into hampers

  • Choose a location that has adequate space for physical distancing between volunteers (estimate 5m2 per person).
  • The organizer should record the names and phone numbers of all volunteers participating in the activity. Maintain physical distancing between volunteers who are not from the same cohort or household.
  • When repackaging into hampers is conducted at
    • a private household there should not be more than 6 volunteers in addition to the normal household members. except when contrary to PHO orders to limit visitors (volunteers) to the household.
    • another place of business or location, the number of staff and volunteers should not exceed available spacing for physical distancing (5m2 per person).
  • Occupancy limits should be posted.
  • When physical distancing is not possible staff and volunteers are expected to wear masks.
  • Practice frequent hand-washing. Avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth.

When delivering food hampers to the food bank or to households create contactless opportunities for donations

  • Pre-arrange drop off times and locations, and collect contact information for the household, food bank or charity.
  • During delivery of goods, knock or ring bell, then leave.
  • Send a text or e-mail confirmation of delivery.

Driving and deliveries

  • Delivery drivers and volunteers who are not part of the same family or cohort are expected to wear masks when they are together in the same vehicle.
  • If the vehicle is shared and used by others, drivers should clean and disinfect commonly touched surfaces before and after vehicle use.
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