The word “crisis” comes up quickly when speaking with those who run food banks across Canada.
With inflation driving food prices higher while wages and support programs lag behind, numerous directors say demand at Canada’s food banks is greater than ever.
In some cities, food banks have been forced to offer less to each person in order to meet demand.
New Canadians and working, lower-middle class people are among those now lining up for food hampers.
In the North, where food insecurity rates are already disproportionately high, a Yellowknife food bank says it has seen a 72 per cent increase in the number of children who don’t have enough to eat.
Food banks were supposed to be temporary, said David Froh at the Regina Food Bank, which has now been operating for 40 years. He’s one of several directors who said they’re hoping for systemic solutions to poverty and hunger that would ensure people have adequate incomes, and that they could afford to buy enough food.
The Canadian Press sent reporters from across the country to talk to the people running food banks, and to those who use them. Here’s what they found.
‘This is a broken system’: Poverty has caught up with the middle class in Newfoundland
Jody Williams runs the biggest food bank in Newfoundland and Labrador, but he’s not necessarily pleased about it.
“This is a broken system,” Williams said as people began to gather outside for a hamper at the Bridges To Hope Foodbank in St. John’s.
“Even when people do get food here, it’s only enough for a couple of days.”
Bridges to Hope’s client numbers have more than quadrupled since the months before the COVID-19 pandemic, Williams said. Before, he’d open a few days a week and see 20 people a day. Now he’s open four days and one night a week, and he sees about 100 people a day. His fastest-growing client base is working people; he started opening one evening a week last year to accommodate their work schedules.
“This is affecting middle class people now,” he said, adding that working people now make up about 40 per cent of his clientele. They made up about five per cent before the pandemic. “I think the lower-middle class just dropped down to poverty. I think if you were at that lower rung and you were already getting by payday to payday, well, now you’re not.”
People are being squeezed by increasing costs and incomes that don’t keep up with inflation, he said, noting that it’s not just minimum wage workers who are struggling.
“People are starving,” he said. “This is a dire emergency situation, this is a health crisis. And let’s act as though it is a health crisis.”
— By Sarah Smellie in St. John’s
‘I am living off credit cards’: B.C. residents struggle to make ends meet
Waiting outside the Richmond Food Bank, Jacqueline Lendaza said she and her husband have done everything they can to save money, including growing vegetables on their apartment’s balcony and even giving up driving.
However, the senior residents of Richmond said they still struggle to make ends meet as grocery costs skyrocket.
“I used to pay $2.19 for a small carton of milk and now I am paying $3.40. I am living off credit cards. We can’t afford gas. I gave up my vehicle a while ago,” Lendaza said.
For almost 10 years, Lendaza worked for the B.C. government in a role advocating for the needs of the vulnerable. But she said osteoporosis turned her life upside down, with the bone disease making her unable to stand for long periods and forcing her to give up her work.
“We are suffering and we try to do coupon shopping and count the (shopping) points and everything,” said Lendaza, adding that these small “tricks” don’t make life much easier.
Lendaza said she and her husband turned to the food bank near their home to keep their heads above water.
“The beginning was really difficult and it was embarrassing to come in, but after you have been a few times you get used to it,” she said.
— By Nono Shen in Vancouver
‘Now, you have to pick’: Inventory dwindles at Toronto food bank
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Franca Eidbobo has been relying on her bi-weekly visits to a food bank in Toronto’s north end.
The 42-year-old woman had previously considered visiting a food bank before the pandemic hit, when she was juggling several part-time jobs while dealing with multiple health issues. But she decided at the time that others needed the service more.
“I would always have this guilty feeling that there’s someone having it worse than me, and me taking this food from them, it felt like I shouldn’t be doing that,” she said.
That changed in 2020, when her health issues worsened and she couldn’t work.
“When COVID hit, and I looked at my pantry … It was like I had no choice.”
Eidbobo relies on government assistance to make ends meet, saying her health conditions prevent her from working. She lives a few minutes away from her food bank, on the fourth floor of a building with no elevators, and said food bank staff and volunteers sometimes help her carry food up to her apartment.
She used to regularly receive vegetables, fresh fruits, dried foods, rice and pasta from the food bank early in the pandemic but said that lately, the options have become more limited.
“Now, you have to pick rice or pasta or noodles,” she said. “I think the last time they gave the vegetables, I think that they were potatoes, onion and cucumbers, and that was like over a month and a half ago.”
She noted, however, that food bank staff do their best to help those in need.
“If they have it, they give it.”
— By Maan Alhmidi in Toronto
Regina food bank looks to ‘long-term investments’
It’s a birthday David Froh wish he didn’t have to celebrate.
The vice-president of community at the Regina Food Bank is marking the organization’s 40th anniversary. And while it’s a chance to thank volunteers and supporters for decades of help, he says it’s another year where poverty goes unsolved.
“The Regina Food Bank, like all food banks in Canada, was intended to be temporary, a response to high inflation and high costs, which sounds familiar these days,” Froh said in an interview. “Sadly, 40 years later, demand for food bank services across Canada continues to go up.”
The food bank plans to provide 350 boxes of groceries a day to its clients. Two years ago, that number was 160.
“We’ve more than doubled over the last two years,” Froh said. “It’s an economic crisis, it’s a health crisis, it’s an education crisis. We’re addressing the symptom, not the cause.”
Froh said all types of people come to the food bank, including those who work full-time. They may not make a living wage, or they can’t afford rent, or they’re on disability, he said.
Even as the organization helps more people, he said there are thousands more who continue to come home to empty tables.
“We just need to be smarter and be brave to make some very data-informed, long-term investments to address this issue,” he said. “And then we’ll be better off.”
— By Jeremy Simes in Saskatchewan
Montreal food banks left to ‘pick up the slack’
Quebec is in the midst of a food insecurity crisis but the government is slow to respond, says Tasha Lackman, executive director of The Depot Community Food Centre, in Montreal.
An increase in demand in the last year has forced the depot to cap the number of daily visitors to its food bank and reduce the size of its baskets by almost 30 per cent. The centre has also considered charging a small fee for the baskets.
Lackman said the rising cost of living is driving increased demand for food at the depot. Among her new clients are newcomers to Canada, who she said lack robust support from the government, leaving community organizations to “pick up the slack.”
Welcome Hall Mission’s food bank in Montreal is also reporting increased demand this year, said Sam Watts, the mission’s executive director. He said many new clients are people who rely on the service to cover their needs toward the end of the month, after their paycheque runs out.
Peter Hackmann, who came to Canada as a refugee, has been using the mission’s food bank since 2008. He said he has been unable to find consistent work and now has a part-time, minimum-wage job with minimal government assistance.
Hackmann is calling on the government to better fund the food bank.
Watts, however, said he is hoping for a more comprehensive approach that addresses the root causes of food insecurity.
“Should a food bank really exist in Canada in 2023 is the question we should be asking ourselves,” Watts said.
— By Thomas MacDonald in Montreal
‘Huge increase in numbers; no increase in budget’ at Ottawa food bank
Since Diana Mahaffy joined the Centretown Community Food Centre as its manager two-and-a-half years ago, demand has more than doubled while its budget has remained the same.
Providing an average of 1,035 people a month and more than 12,000 per year with food is already a difficult task, but Mahaffy said the independently run downtown Ottawa food bank is now seeing a 40 per cent annual increase in the number of people who access its services.
“Food security has always been an issue for some people in our community and we want to be there to help them,” she said. Most people who come in are single and many rely solely on the Ontario Disability Support Program for income, Mahaffy said.
But the increased demand has forced Centretown to cut back on the quantity of food it provides to each client. For example, it now offers them one large package of protein per visit — such as ground beef — rather than two.
The centre’s emergency food program does not receive government funding and instead relies on community partners and individual supporters. That puts its sustainability into question as the cost of living rises, Mahaffy said.
“Our budget is completely dependent on people making donations,” she said, adding that she worries it’s getting tougher and tougher for people to find money to contribute.
“Everybody in the community is facing the same challenges with inflation, with price increases in every aspect of their lives.”
— By Liam Fox in Ottawa
Increased demand in the North amid fewer donations
The food bank at the Salvation Army in Yellowknife has seen a significant increase in demand over the past year, said executive director Jason Brinson.
From May 2022 to May 2023, use by single adults and households has jumped by 51 per cent and 49 per cent, respectively.
The number of children relying on the food bank has gone up by 72 per cent, from 101 in May last year to 174 a year later, he said.
At the same time donations have decreased. Brinson said the Salvation Army has gone from spending a few thousand dollars to purchase food a year to spending more than $160,000 during the 2022-2023 fiscal year.
“We think there’s a number of reasons for that, some of which might just be the cost of food,” he said. “So people are not able to donate food in the same way that they were before.”
The food bank, which offers non-perishable and some perishable foods, is open twice a week and qualified individuals and families are able to access the service once a month. Brinson said they were previously able to increase that limit to two times a month with funding provided during the pandemic.
They’d like to offer more fresh foods but costs make that challenging.
— By Emily Blake in Yellowknife
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 30, 2023.