GTA food banks say they're facing the highest demand in their history

·4 min read
Food banks across the GTA are reporting they're the busiest they've ever been, and are also trying to keep up with rising food costs themselves. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)
Food banks across the GTA are reporting they're the busiest they've ever been, and are also trying to keep up with rising food costs themselves. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)

Food banks across the GTA are noticing a steep rise in working class families using their services and they say the record numbers they're seeing are extremely concerning.

"Pre-pandemic it was around 60,000 people per month, which on its own was incredibly difficult for the city to handle," said Neil Hetherington, CEO of the Daily Bread Food Bank.

"It grew with the pandemic to 120,000 per month and then with inflation, it's gone to 182,000 this past month."

Hetherington notes this is the highest number of food bank visits in the organization's recorded history, and it's not getting any better.

Those running Greater Toronto food banks are citing the rising cost of food and rent as the reason, and say they're noticing that more people still can't make ends meet, even though many have full-time jobs. The City of Toronto says it continues to work to support their growing needs, but food banks say the rising costs are also impacting their own operations and that adds to to the pressure and need for immediate solutions.

"Before the pandemic Daily Bread spent $1.6 million a year on food," Hetherington explained, adding that number has now ballooned to $13 million.

Hetherington notes they've been able to keep up because staff and volunteers have risen to the occasion, but he warns a continued increase at this rate is not sustainable.

At the Mississauga Food Bank, CEO Meghan Nicholls says they went from serving around 19,000 people pre-pandemic to about 30,000 people in recent months.

Talia Ricci/CBC
Talia Ricci/CBC

"In addition to that, people are coming to the food bank more often. So we're providing 22 per cent more food each year."

She's also hearing about the rising cost of living contributing to the challenges of affording food, as more than 70 per cent of their clients are in the rental market.

Nicholls says lately, families that face a job loss, an illness or a marriage ending often are no longer able to 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 is aiming to raise $1.5 million and collect 500,000 pounds of food through their Thanksgiving campaign.

Smaller food banks also face increased demand

Paul Uytenbogaart, director of Toronto's  Allan Gardens Food Bank, says 60 per cent more people are using their services now compared to 2019.

"We serve people who are considered the working poor. Their costs are increasing, the dollar is not going as far," he said.

"I got an email the other day from someone asking to register,saying their wife got laid off and there just was not enough money in the house to buy the groceries they need. All the time this happens."

Submitted by Paul Uytenbogaart
Submitted by Paul Uytenbogaart

Uytenbogaart has also noted an increase in Ukrainian refugees and new Canadians visiting the food bank over the summer.

"The bottom line is there's no indication the demand is going to go down."

Devi Arasanayagam, co founder of the Fort York Food Bank, says the increase in demand was unexpected.

"We assumed once the economy opened up, we would see less and less people coming to the food bank," she said.

"But to our surprise, it's been a very steady increase."

Families with children and international students are among their clientele, Arasanayagam says.

"I've been with the Fort York Food Bank for 24 years and these are the highest numbers we've seen."

In a written statement, Sean McIntyre with the City of Toronto's Poverty Reduction Strategy Office says the city continues to collaborate with stakeholders to support the growing needs of local food banks and to mitigate 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 city council in June 2023 for approval."

Looking at their data, Arasanayagam says she notices about a two-month lag between rising costs and more people coming to the food bank. She's worried about what's to come.

The future is also on Hetherington's mind.

"I don't know how to articulate as clearly as possible that we are at a crisis level...if there were 180,000 Torontonians without power or who were snowed in, we'd call the army and we'd take massive efforts to help people recover from that emergency situation," he said.

"We need to treat this as that kind of emergency."