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'We are at a breaking point:' Canadian food banks struggling to meet rising demand

Canadian food banks sounding alarm amid record number of visitors struggling to put food on their tables

A record number of Canadians are turning to food banks as a source of putting food on the table while rising housing and inflation rates leave many choosing between essentials such as food, clothing or shelter.

Toronto-based Daily Bread Food Bank reported close to 270,000 visits in the month of March alone — the highest in their 40-year history.

"We are absolutely in a crisis, and now we are at a breaking point," said CEO Neil Hetherington at a time when food banks across the country are struggling to keep up with rising demand.

A survey of nearly 3,000 Canadian charities finds more than half couldn’t meet demand for help, while nearly a third reported a significant drop in revenue. A worker fills the shelves at a food bank in Montreal, on Wednesday, January 27, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
A survey of nearly 3,000 Canadian charities finds more than half couldn’t meet demand for help, while nearly a third reported a significant drop in revenue. A worker fills the shelves at a food bank in Montreal, on Wednesday, January 27, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

"Over the past twelve months, there have been 1.99 million visits to food banks, and demand is projected to push that number to over two million for the 2022 calendar year," a report released by Daily Bread Food Bank and North York Harvest Food Bank states.

Food insecurity concerns are placing food banks in precarious position as the volume of Canadians utilizing their services is "not sustainable," Hetherington says.

Pre-pandemic, the Daily Bread Food Bank, which runs a network of 128 food banks across the Greater Toronto Area, reported an average of 65,000 client visits per month. Last month, that number has exploded to 270,000, with an additional 12,000 new people seeking emergency food services per month.

As Canadians experience sticker-shock in grocery store aisles, public food donations, one of the key means food banks employ in meeting the needs of the communities they serve, is no longer sufficient in meeting the demand.

Hetherington says pre-pandemic, 80 per cent of the charity's needs were met through public food donations and the other 20 per cent through food they purchased themselves, at a cost of $1.5 million a year. This year however, Hetherington says the growth of new clients has outpaced public generosity, resulting in the charity spending $1.8 million a month just to meet demands.

The increasing severity of food insecurity among Canadians is also changing the demographic of people who rely on food banks to put food on their tables.

Typically, food banks across the country are utilized by individuals who rely on some form of provincial social assistance. Recently however, this number includes children, who make up one third of food bank visitors, senior citizens, and individuals who report employment as their main source of income.

“Month after month, we keep seeing the impact of insufficient incomes, combined with inflation and rising costs of living, lead to record-breaking numbers,” Hetherington said.

Main reasons Canadians access a food bank
Main reasons Canadians access a food bank

A survey conducted by Food Banks Canada during March 2022 revealed that one in five respondents had gone hungry at least once during the previous two years due to lack of money.

"The housing crisis has become unmanageable; it is now normal for an adult to rent a home in a house without roommates for $1,200+. People are unable to spare any wages for food due to housing costs and rising food costs.

"I'm looking for a glimmer of hope, and I'm an optimistic guy, but there hasn't been any, said Hetherington.

Hetherington is calling on the Ontario Government to take immediate action to help address the growing food insecurity crisis.

“It is the government’s duty to ensure that every person in this city, in this country, can realize their right to food. This is not something that can be outsourced to charities. We are at a breaking point and need action now,” Hetherington said. “We simply cannot go on this way. Today we are raising the alarm and will continue to do so. We will not stand silently while our neighbours go hungry."

While food banks are desperate for food and monetary donations, Hetherington says what is needed more than anything else is for Canadians to write their elected officials as a call to action aimed at addressing the affordability crisis.

Daily Bread Food Bank has even created a template to make it easier for people to reach officials and are asking Canadians to add their voice calling for an immediate emergency top-up to address food affordability for low-income Ontarians.

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