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Longtime director of Surrey Food Bank retiring

Marilyn Herrmann takes a break Wednesday from directing the movers at her Surrey home to take a phone call about another momentous move, from longtime executive director of the Surrey Food Bank to retiree.

She’s upping stakes in both areas of her life, downsizing with her husband to a suite at her daughter’s home and leaving the food bank, where’s she’s been working for the past 14 years and has been in charge for 12 of them.

“I have mixed feelings, there’s huge emotion around this,” said Herrmann, 64, who also sits on the board of Food Banks Canada and is involved with Food Banks B.C. and the Surrey homelessness board; those service positions are ending this month. “I think I would just like to be bored for a while.”

Since she started at the food bank, staff has doubled to 16 full- and part-time employees from seven or eight, and clients have also doubled to 14,000 a month. Of those clients, 41 per cent are children, the highest percentage in Canada.

“That is a lot, the national average is 30 per cent,” she said. “We’re a young community, a growing community. There is still some affordable housing.”

The food bank buys $10,000 worth of baby formula from a wholesaler every six to eight weeks because Herrmann recalled years ago when a mother came looking for formula and they had none.

“She cried, and I cried, and I thought, ‘This is not OK,’ ” she said.

She said the face of the food bank has changed over the years. 

“It’s more working families. People who have two or three jobs with low pay and they’re not getting benefits. They’re struggling.”

In 2015, the food bank discovered by analyzing client data that 60 per cent of users, on average, use the food bank one to five times. The 40 per cent of regular users rely on the food bank because their low-paying jobs only cover housing and daycare, she said.

“The toughest part has been seeing people still need a food bank for reasons that are out of their control,” she said.

The food bank recently extended its hours to the evenings, once every two weeks, because working people can’t pick up their food because they work all day.

It’s also opened a depot for seniors, who have different health issues and dietary needs. That twice-a-month depot opens at 1:30 p.m., but the seniors arrive at the recreation centre as early as 7:30 a.m. and spend the morning socializing.

It also offers halal and gluten-free items and food for diabetics, dependent on what’s donated.

The food bank three years ago changed from providing hampers to clients to allowing them to come and shop for what they need.

It relies every day on 40 to 50 volunteers, including those from corporate or school groups. “It’s teaching the kids empathy. We’re thrilled with that (school-volunteer) program.”

For six years, the food bank has been trying to find a larger warehouse or land to build one, but the estimate for building because of rising real estate costs is $6.5 million, said Herrmann.

“I said I wouldn’t retire until we found a building, but I’d be here until I was 100,” she said.

Herrmann said she will miss her “passionate and caring” teams she’s worked with over the years, the “wonderful” clients and the volunteers.

“I want to spend more time with family,” said Hermann, who before answering a want ad for the job in Surrey worked as a teacher, was a single mother of three, worked at a warehouse and went to college in her 50s to learn floral design. “But I don’t think I’ll ever really retire. I’m just not that kind of person.”

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