St. Thomas food bank demand hits all-time high as donations slip

Growing up in St. Thomas, Emily Phillimore always was aware her parents struggled financially.

But it wasn’t until earlier this year when the 29-year-old started struggling to feed her own children that she’d learned how bad the situation was.

The single mother of two had just switched from the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) program to Ontario Works because she couldn’t find daycare for her three-year-old son.

“There was a mishap with (my payment), and I was only getting $757 for me and two kids to live on per month,” Phillimore said, adding she previously received nearly $2,000 a month on CERB.

Facing unbearable prices for food, rent and fuel, and barriers related to her disabilities, she knew she needed help but wasn’t sure where to go.

“I didn’t know what to do,” Phillimore said. “I had a bad idea in my head about the food bank, and there was a stigma behind it.”

That’s when Phillimore called her dad for advice. “He said, 'A few of our Thanksgiving meals were from the food bank,' and it changed my entire (outlook). I never knew,” she said.

Since March, Phillimore has visited the St. Thomas-Elgin Food Bank once a month.

The food bank in St. Thomas, a city of about 43,000, is seeing record numbers of people coming for help — serving people like Phillimore and her family, who are feeling the pinch of soaring prices — within the last few months.

“Demand has been overwhelming. It’s been greater than ever,” said Karen McDade, manager of public relations and administration for the St. Thomas Elgin Food Bank.

“Sometimes, in a day, we’re feeding over 100 people, and that’s doubled from just even a few months back.”

More than 300 people — many first-time clients — turned to the food bank for help within a week last month, up from 200 clients during the same week in 2021 and 173 the year prior.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the overall need has surged by around 53 per cent.

The face of people seeking help is changing. It’s not just people who are low-income or homeless, said McDade. “We’re getting families that have owned their own home,” she said, referring to clients like Phillimore.

“They have had two cars at one time. They’ve had two jobs. But right now, they are struggling because some have lost their jobs due to COVID and have not found the correct fit afterward.”

Many clients who are new to the St. Thomas area, including those who fled the war in Ukraine, are using its service for the first time. Most say rising costs for food and rent are to blame, McDade said.

The situation is similar in nearby London, where its food bank reported earlier this month that demand is up 30 per cent, serving a record number of more than 4,000 households in September.

Food banks are trying to meet such needs while coping with a drop in donations. For some, that means spending more from financial donations to supply the necessary items.

“I’m spending easily between $3,000 and $5,000 a week. That could have been monthly about a year ago,” said McDade.

Those using the food bank can receive a food hamper every 21 days, one per family member.

“The weeks when I’m in between (paycheques), it just kind of fills the gap,” Phillimore said, adding the hampers come with snacks and juice boxes for her kids, among other items such as wipes, toiletries and diapers.

Phillimore, who suffers from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and multiple sclerosis, said she recently transitioned from Ontario Works to the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) and is looking for a job.

“I was trying to work part-time,” she said. “But it’s just hard with two little ones in the house.”

While her perception of hunger relief has changed, Phillimore says she still has heard some negative comments about using the food bank.

“It’s frustrating,” she said. “People think ... ‘It’s just because you don’t want to work, right?’ That has nothing to do with it. It’s because the world today is impossible. Everything is too expensive,” Phillimore said.

“The stigma needs to go because a lot more people are having to rely on this, just like I do, to fill the gap and get by.

cleon@postmedia.com

twitter.com/CalviatLFPress

Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press