EASTERN ONTARIO – Fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, the housing crisis, and the escalating cost of living is changing the way Eastern Ontario’s rural food banks operate.
Food Banks United is a collaborative of six food banks serving rural Eastern Ontario. Its’ members are seeing a dramatic need to change the way they assist some of their clients, especially those experiencing homelessness. With the rising numbers of homeless, food banks are not only being called on to provide more food more frequently, but they’re also needing to provide different kinds of food, food that doesn’t require a functioning kitchen with a fridge and stove for storage and cooking, for instance.
“With COVID and with the housing crisis, we’re seeing people come through the doors that maybe typically wouldn’t, and we’re having to react accordingly,” HOL executive director Cathy Ashby said. “For instance, we’re serving people who have been living in camping trailers or living in their vehicles. They cannot take five to seven days worth of food at a time. They don’t and they can’t take the same type of food; they don’t have a fridge for meat, they don’t have a stove to cook. So, we have to be creative in what we give them. So, a lot of fresh fruit, a lot of like the on-the-shelf milk, cans that have the flip lids like tuna.”
Food Banks United members are finding themselves giving more food more often to the increasing number of clients facing homelessness. Food bank operators noted that it was a bit easier in the winter months when the temperature was colder and food could be left out without fear of it spoiling, the summer heat is here and no doubt, will be for several months to come.
Why are Food Banks United’s food banks seeing increasing numbers of homeless coming through their doors in the last couple of years? Life for many has simply become unaffordable. A single person on Ontario Works (OW), for instance, brings in roughly $733 per month, while a single person on the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) is bringing in roughly $1,132 per month. Housing costs alone exceed the income, leaving little to nothing left for food and other basic needs.
“As food banks, we’re a trusted entity in the communities that we serve, and so people in need come to the door and we’re having to pivot, we’re having to change what we’re doing in order to meet these needs as best we can,” Bonnie Pidgeon Cougler executive director of South Grenville Food Bank said, noting that they’re no longer receiving government funding in response to the pandemic. “Through the pandemic and through housing becoming more and more of a crisis, we’re at the point now where the people coming through the doors are a different clientele. We’re having to meet their needs in a different way.”
Despite the government’s decision to end pandemic funding to these organizations, the need for their services has increased due to fallout from the pandemic. Food banks are now in a position of trying to serve more people with less. In addition to increasing needs, the non-profits are dealing with the increased cost of food, as well as the increased cost of operating the buildings that house the food.
“It’s a really precarious situation and we have concerns, so we’re doing our due diligence in getting the fundraising going,” Jane Schoones, team leader of Community Food Share said, noting that it’s not possible to sustain the current level of assistance without increased funding of some sort. “We only have so much money and food, with the needs of homeless people getting greater, the types of foods that we have to offer is changing. In the past we were not used to having many homeless people come through our doors, when we did, we were generally able to find them housing somewhere, and that’s just not the case anymore.”
Currently, many food bank clients are coming for help for the first time in their lives. They’re facing situational poverty due to the pandemic-influenced rising costs of living. They may only need help for a short period of time, but they need it now, and food banks need help to meet those increasing and pressing needs.
The stigma associated with using a food bank needs to change, as well, as many who need the help are simply going without out of fear of how they’ll be perceived. Meanwhile, food banks are seeing increasing numbers of working individuals and families needing their services, as well, due to the discrepancy in income versus cost of living.
“We’re seeing a lot more working people using food banks and that just makes sense because the dollars are being stretched too far and let’s hope they don’t have to move because rents out there are extremely high,” Lisa Duprau, executive director of the Agape Centre stated.
Food Banks United’s members are here to help. They’re currently looking at their own operations to find ways to streamline or be creative in meeting the increasing needs. Despite this, they will need the help of their communities, including all levels of government, now more than ever.