SASKATOON -- Several groups in Prince Albert have pitched in to ensure 85 families can cook nutritious meals as Christmas nears.

On Wednesday, Prince Albert Outreach Program staff distributed hampers consisting of food for a few hearty meals. Safeway donated most of the food, such as ham and potatoes, the Prince Albert Police Association donated oranges and the Prince Albert Grand Council donated fresh vegetables.

The P.A. Outreach Program also included “a special surprise,” according to elder Liz Settee.

“I remember growing up, we would get our hampers from the Salvation Army,” she said.

“I know what it’s like to appreciate the hampers and it just makes me feel so much better to be able to pass that on and do it for someone else.”

The Prince Albert Outreach Program helps youth feel a sense of belonging and gain independence. Settee said staff were tasked with choosing eight or so families they feel would benefit from the hampers.

Most of Settee’s connections come from working at the Saskatchewan Rivers Public School Division.

That’s how she met 15-year-old Paige Smith, a Grade 10 student at Prince Albert Collegiate Institute.

Smith isn’t keeping the hamper for herself, though — she’s giving it to her sister.

“She needs hampers. I’ve gotten her a hamper before, a few months ago,” said Smith. “She makes supper every day, and she has a baby, so I like giving them supper.”

She said Settee has been influential to her and her friends. Prior to the pandemic, Settee would join them for smudging every week.

“She makes sure people eat and have enough food to have in their cupboards, and I don’t know where the food comes from, but it ends up in my house and I’m very grateful for her,” said Smith.

This is the fourth year the P.A. Outreach Program has distributed holiday hampers. Settee said typically they include homemade baked goods, but chose not to this year to protect against COVID-19.

Next year, she said they may amp up the initiative and distribute 100 hampers.

“The need is so high before Christmas, and to be able to do a little bit extra at Christmas is such a neat feeling,” said Settee.

A Statistics Canada report released on Wednesday suggests that about one in seven Canadians, or 14.6 per cent, were living in a food insecure household in May 2020. Those who had inadequate access to food at the beginning of the pandemic reported fair or poor mental health, it said.

The study also estimated that 9.3 per cent of food insecure Canadians have recently accessed free food from a community organization.