Advertisement

'We're in a state of crisis': Montreal food bank seeing highest demand ever

Carolyn Cutler, left, a volunteer with Share the Warmth and Kimber Fellows, the organization's director of philanthropy, say the organization's food bank is overwhelmed and scrambling to meet the community's needs.  (Matt D'Amours/CBC - image credit)
Carolyn Cutler, left, a volunteer with Share the Warmth and Kimber Fellows, the organization's director of philanthropy, say the organization's food bank is overwhelmed and scrambling to meet the community's needs. (Matt D'Amours/CBC - image credit)

During one of her regular food bank visits, Olha Oryshchenko fills a reusable grocery bag with canned foods, fresh produce and prepared meals.

Since fleeing the war in Ukraine with her family more than a year ago, Oryshchenko says her family has counted on Montreal's Share the Warmth organization to help them get by as they rebuild their lives.

"For my family, we kind of are reliant on the food bank," said Oryshchenko. "We receive a lot of help over here."

Whether they're new arrivals, regular clients or new users, more people than ever are turning to Share the Warmth's food bank — and it's becoming a big problem.

"We're completely overwhelmed, we're in a state of crisis," said Kimber Fellows, the director of philanthropy and communications at Share the Warmth, which serves Montreal's Sud-Ouest and Verdun boroughs.

Olha Oryshchenko says her family wouldn't be able to make ends meet if not for Share the Warmth's food bank. (Matt D'Amours/CBC)

Fellows says in that its 35 years, the organization has "never seen anything like this" in terms of demand.

In 2022, the food bank served roughly 800 to 900 people a month. This year, that number has approached 2,700.

"We're not going to be able to meet these demands for an extended period of time," said Fellows.

"Inflation has made food unaffordable for so many families. It's unacceptable that there's this many people that are hungry in Montreal."

Every Tuesday and Thursday, the organization hosts a community lunch as well as a food bank. Doors open at 11:30 a.m., but lately, lineups have been forming as early as 8 a.m.

'No typical' food bank user anymore

Carolyn Cutler has been a volunteer at Share the Warmth for nearly 12 years. At almost 80 years old, she says volunteering is a two-way street.

"You get to know the people, you get to talk, find out different things about them … so you get something out of it too," she said.

In all her years interacting with community members, however, she says things "have changed for sure."

"At the beginning, there would be more people that would be considered typical for a food bank [user] — there's no typical now," she said.

Cutler says dual-income families with kids are among people showing up for help these days.

"It's really scary, really scary. It's scary for families. It's scary for seniors."

'There's too much need' 

Fellows says the swelling demand at most food banks across Quebec has also contributed to the changing demographic of her clients.

She says people from outside of the Sud-Ouest and Verdun boroughs are coming to her food bank because their local ones can no longer help.

"I saw people coming from the Olympic Stadium, from downtown Montreal, from LaSalle, from Hochelaga, and this is a new phenomenon because, rightfully so, a lot of food banks right now are not taking new people," said Fellows.

In these situations, Share the Warmth provides these people with an emergency food basket.

"We're not able to turn away someone who's in need of food, you know, but this is a temporary fix and it's not a long-term strategy for us," said Fellows.

Gathering enough food to meet the growing demand for aid has become a problem for food banks across Quebec. (Matt D'Amours/CBC)

Many food banks in Quebec are cutting back on services or have been forced to close for the holidays. At Share the Warmth, the doors are staying open, but the situation is dire.

"We've never refused people at our food bank over these past few months because people are desperate and they need us and we're not willing to turn our back on them, but it comes at a literal cost and we're feeling that," Fellows said.

Share the Warmth receives almost no government funding, instead relying heavily on donations from the private sector and individual donors, Fellows says. The organization has to buy a lot of extras itself to keep up with demand.

But unless the organization gets more funding from the government or an angel investor comes through during the holiday period, "I don't see how this is sustainable," Fellows said.

"I'm not saying we're closing our doors, I'm not saying we'll refuse people … but I don't see this being a long term strategy. There's too much need."

During the month of December, CBC will be working with Food Banks of Quebec to showcase stories of people in our community who are making a difference for our "Make the Season Kind" campaign. For more stories and to learn more about this campaign, visit cbc.ca/bekindqc. You can make a donation to Food Banks of Quebec here.

(CBC)