Rising prices leave emergency food programs in Thunder Bay, Ont., scrambling to fill the need

·4 min read
A volunteer unloads crates of milk at the distribution centre for Moisson Montreal, the largest food bank in Canada. Food programs for vulnerable people in Thunder Bay, Ont., are seeing more use than ever as prices continue to rise.  (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press  - image credit)
A volunteer unloads crates of milk at the distribution centre for Moisson Montreal, the largest food bank in Canada. Food programs for vulnerable people in Thunder Bay, Ont., are seeing more use than ever as prices continue to rise. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press - image credit)

Over the Easter weekend, Mandi O'Connor was busy preparing hundreds of meals at a local shelter in Thunder Bay, Ont.

Despite the persistent snowy weather, O'Connor said it was the largest Easter meal she's prepared for Shelter House, and came on the heels of the several other large holiday meals.

"Christmas was super busy this year. It was probably the busiest that I've seen here," she said.

O'Connor is well positioned to know — she's been volunteering with the local shelter for the last 10 years, and for the last five, has spent every holiday preparing hundreds of meals.

While food banks did see some increased numbers over the pandemic, O'Connor believes high inflation and the constantly climbing prices of food have driven more people to rely on emergency programs.

In March, Canada's inflation rate rose to 6.7 per cent — a 30-year high — with Statistics Canada reporting that everything from food and energy to shelter costs and transportation have become more expensive.

Several food assistance organizations in northwestern Ontario say they too have seen a growing number of people relying on their programs — but inflation has left the organizations themselves feeling the squeeze.

Food banks 'running at 3 times normal'

"Some of the food banks are running at three times normal … and now the demand is changing [because people] can't afford it, so they're asking for things that we've never been able to supply before," said Volker Kromm, executive director of the Regional Food Distribution Association (RFDA), which supplies food to organizations across the region.

Cathy Alex/CBC
Cathy Alex/CBC

"Now I'm running around Ontario, trying to find protein in larger volumes, as well as vegetables. And when I go shopping, it's $50,000 per order. I'm at a totally different scale these days and I just don't see that easing up."

That grocery bill is likely going to keep increasing, Kromm said, because the RFDA's suppliers have already warned him prices will keep rising.

"I'm in a panic that there won't be the food [we need], so I'm trying to get donations across Canada and across Ontario."

The RFDA is not the only one facing the same situation.

Food programs feeling financial squeeze

Roots to Harvest runs a number of programs to increase food access, including a community market in Thunder Bay and in Kiashke Zaaging Anishinaabek (Gull Bay First Nation).

Since 2020, the program has provided fresh fruit and vegetables for sale at reduced prices, with the cost of the food being subsidized.

"People budget toward those, like they specifically budget toward knowing the cost of their food," said Erin Beagle, the organization's executive director.

In the last two years, the market has maintained the same costs for all products, so the people who rely on it can hold some consistency — despite the fact that some foods, like berries, cucumbers and lettuce, have doubled in price.

"We're just having to subsidize and find more funding in order to do that so people can still access them," Beagle said, adding while they are continually searching for more funding, they won't be increasing the food prices at the market.

"When we have told people this is a reliable source of food access for you, then to change that just seems a little bit cruel."

'Beating the inflation race is on'

Sylvain Charlebois, director of the agri-food analytics lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said this increased demand and financial squeeze are being felt by food assistance programs across Canada.

In addition to the rising costs of living, Charlebois said, food banks aren't seeing as many donations or government investments, especially as pandemic-related emergency measures are eased. That's led to food banks trying to buy up as much wholesale product as possible.

Radio-Canada
Radio-Canada

"The good old 'beating the inflation' race is on for sure," Charlebois said. "If you have to buy a lot of food. You have to think about the future.

"Some industrial buying is impacted by the fact that a lot of buyers are trying to beat the impact of inflation. And I think that's going to last for a while."

Charlebois said ways to deal with rising food costs include consumers reducing their own food waste and avoiding buying in bulk or stockpiling certain items, which could create scarcity and drive food prices up even further.

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