Food banks across the GTA are noticing a sharp rise in working-class families using their services and say the records they see are very worrying.
“In the pre-pandemic period it was about 60,000 people a month, which in itself was very difficult for the city to deal with,” said Neil Hetherington, chief executive of Daily Mail Food Bank.
“It grew with the pandemic to 120,000 per month, and then with inflation, it went up to 182,000 last month.”
Hetherington notes that this is the largest number of food bank visits in the organization’s recorded history, and it hasn’t gotten any better.
Those who run food banks in Greater Toronto cite the rising cost of food and rent as a reason, and say they note that more people are still unable to make ends meet, even though many of them have full-time jobs. The city of Toronto says it is continuing to work to support its growing needs, but food banks say higher costs are also affecting their own operations and this is adding to the pressure and the need for immediate solutions.
“Before the pandemic, daily bread spent $1.6 million annually on food,” Hetherington explained, adding that that number has now ballooned to $13 million.
Hetherington notes that they’ve been able to keep up because staff and volunteers have risen to the occasion, but cautions that a continued increase at this rate is not sustainable.
At the Mississauga food bank, CEO Megan Nichols says they went from serving about 19,000 people before the pandemic to about 30,000 in recent months.
“Plus, people come to the food bank more often. So we serve 22 percent more food each year.”
I’ve also heard about the high cost of living contributing to the challenges of catering, as more than 70 percent of its customers are in the rental market.
Recently, Nichols says, families facing job loss, illness or the end of marriage often can no longer afford groceries.
“The stories that resonate with me the most are the stories of people who didn’t need a food bank, until they did,” she said.
Her food bank aims to raise $1.5 million and raise 500,000 pounds of food through them Thanksgiving campaign.
Smaller food banks are also facing increasing demand
Paul Uytenbogaart, director of Allan Gardens Food Bank in Toronto, says 60 percent of people are using their services now compared to 2019.
“We serve people who are considered poor workers. Their costs are increasing and the dollar is not going away,” he said.
“I got an email that day from a guy asking to register, saying his wife was laid off and there wasn’t enough money at home to buy the groceries they needed. It all happens all the time.”
Uytenbogaart also noted an increase in the number of new Ukrainian and Canadian refugees visiting the food bank during the summer.
“The bottom line is that there is no indication that demand will decrease.”
The surge in demand was unexpected, says Devi Arasanaygam, co-founder of Fort York Food Bank.
“We assumed that once the economy opened up, we would see fewer and fewer people coming to the food bank,” she said.
“But to our surprise, it has been a very steady increase.”
Families with children and international students are among their clients, Arasanayagam says.
“I’ve been working with the Fort York Food Bank for 24 years and these are the highest numbers we’ve seen.”
In a written statement, Sean McIntyre of the City of Toronto’s Office of Poverty Reduction Strategy said the city continues to collaborate with stakeholders to support the growing needs of local food banks and alleviate food insecurity across Toronto.
His statement says an action plan is under development that will “support systemic solutions to food insecurity in Toronto. The action plan will be submitted to the City Council in June 2023 for approval.”
Looking at their data, Arasanayagam says she’s noticed a two-month delay between rising costs and more people coming to the food bank. She is worried about what is to come.
The future is also on Hetherington’s mind.
“I don’t know how to say as clearly as possible that we are at a crisis level…if 180,000 Torontonians are out of power or it snows, we will call the military and we will make huge efforts in order to help people recover from this emergency.”
“We need to treat this as this kind of emergency.”
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