Food banks are working tirelessly to fill the hunger gaps made worse by COVID-19. We took an in-depth look into the challenges Canadian food banks have faced and overcome, and what hurdles are expected in the new year.
“As we go into the holiday season, know that food banks continue to work in overdrive for our neighbours and communities in need. This year, more than ever, people understand that food insecurity could happen to anybody. Food banks from coast-to-coast-to-coast have stepped up to help, even with extreme drops in volunteers and significant impacts from the pandemic. The valuable support of our fellow Canadians will help us achieve our vision of a Canada where no one goes hungry”.
That is the message from Chris Hatch, CEO of Food Banks Canada. The organization provides national leadership and works in collaboration with food banks across the country to relieve and prevent hunger.
Since March, the pandemic has seriously affected food security, creating obstacles food banks must tackle constantly.
Food Banks Canada released a COVID-19 report to offer some insight into the biggest difficulties food banks are facing. Large-scale unemployment during the pandemic has created a rising surge in the need for their services.
According to their report, food banks are facing huge operational challenges. Fewer volunteers, difficulty purchasing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), disruptions in the food supply chain and COVID-related restrictions meant every step from getting food and donations to giving those in need the food had to be rethought.
“Food banks have always been masters of doing so much with so little, even at the best of times,” said Carolyn Stewart, Executive Director of Feed Ontario.
The ways in which food banks were able to adapt and innovate over the course of this year is proof of their resiliency.
Sixty-seven per cent of food banks introduced a home delivery service, which helped cut back on crowds at distribution centres and helped clients who couldn’t get to the food bank during lockdowns.
“Some have shifted to delivery or an outdoor pick-up model, some food banks saw large influxes of folks, others did not for various reasons,” said Laurie O’Connor, Executive Director of Food Banks of Saskatchewan and the Saskatoon Food Bank.
O’Connor added that because some regions in Saskatchewan saw an increase in clients while others saw fewer than average, sharing and borrowing within their network of 36 food banks proved invaluable.
A lot is owed to those who work and volunteer for food banks, as physical distancing and safety protocols meant fewer people could work in the usual space, and smaller teams took on more labour-intensive practices to meet the need.
“It’s been one of the biggest challenges,” said Dan Huang-Taylor, Executive Director of Food Banks BC, about following public health restrictions. “But it’s been overcome repeatedly by folks who are operating on the front line.”
The Season of Giving
Despite a difficult year, one thing stood out: public donations, whether cash or food, were very strong.
“I’ve just found the public to be so generous over the course of this pandemic, to really be looking to support folks that might be struggling,” stated O’Connor. “I’m not hearing across the province that people are struggling with donations, that spirit of generosity is quite strong here and every sector is looking to [give their] support”.
Of course, the supply of donations varies across Canada, but the executives from Ontario and B.C. were also impressed with the amount of generosity from the public.
The spirit of giving has been steady all year. Food banks are extremely grateful for food donations. Cash donations are especially helpful for organizations to meet their specific needs and stretch every dollar to generate nutritious options for their clients.
Corporate partnerships that Food Banks Canada and individual organizations hold provided another source of funds and food donations.
Government initiatives, including the $100 million Emergency Food Security Fund as well as the Surplus Food Rescue Program, were integral to help ease the strain for those on the front line of food insecurity.
What the Pandemic has Revealed
Many of the provincial food bank leaders mentioned a huge surge in clients right at the beginning of the pandemic. At the same time, we saw empty shelves at grocery stores and supply chain disruptions, creating a challenge to get food and supplies.
“When the pandemic hit, approximately 50 per cent of B.C.’s food banks reported that their numbers went up. The remaining food banks saw no change, or in the case of a small minority, the numbers even decreased. We saw quite a few people who were accessing government benefits being able to pause or reduce their need for food bank services,” explained Huang-Taylor.
In a previous article, author Sylvia Black stressed the importance of income in relation to food insecurity and what a universal basic income might mean. The Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) program helped to ease the strain on food banks and proved this theory.
“CERB mitigated financial catastrophe for many individuals. Our conditions in June would have been significantly worse had it not been there,” Stewart said, citing Ontario’s experience.
A Food Banks Canada report found that 64 per cent of food banks saw CERB as the most significant reason for just over half of their centres seeing decreased use from March to June of 2020.
And 90 per cent felt that government social support in general was responsible for this drop.
This is not a new idea. A strong social safety net helps alleviate hunger, as well as housing and other financial difficulties people face. What the pandemic did reveal is how income support programs can help low-income people who are made more vulnerable by COVID-19.
As programs like CERB are cut back, more people are looking to food banks for help. Rising food prices are going to add pressures on individuals and families to make ends meet. Food prices are estimated to rise by almost $700 in 2021.
“There are concerns that we are going to be facing a strain on resources because of the rising food prices, which is why it’s been so important for us to be able to be prepared for such eventualities,” Huang-Taylor said.
Some food banks have begun stocking a few extra months’ worth of food in the event that their regular income of donations won’t suffice come next year. Finding low cost dry storage and fridge space creates another hurdle.
COVID-19 has already put everyone through unprecedented challenges, so it’s hard to know what the demand will be next year.
Unemployment is often a reliable indicator of food insecurity levels, but a study from the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy revealed that the trend has shifted.
Professor Ron Kneebone examined the relationship between those who are unemployed and food bank visits in Toronto from 2007 to 2020. His results show that while unemployment increased, visits to food banks have been even higher than what the increase would regularly predict during COVID-19. This suggests that simply looking at unemployment will underpredict the need for food support during this pandemic.
The finding shows how much uncertainty there is. The pandemic is changing how the system behaves, thereby changing how these issues need to be addressed.
That uncertainty is not lost on food banks. As they prepare for the coming year, they are aware that their services will be needed long after the pandemic is over.
“If we use the 2008 recession as an example, we saw food bank use climb 30 per cent over the course of two years,” stated Stewart. “That was pre-pandemic, and those numbers have never gone back down.”
“For us, part of the challenge is that we’re going to see the worst of this impact down the road.”
Food banks have proven their resiliency and dedication this year, but they will require the continued support of the government, their corporate partnerships, and the public to continue helping people in need get food on their tables.
Food banks were not meant to be the solution to hunger. Food insecurity is a multi-faceted problem that requires structural change. For now, and while we are dealing with COVID-19, food banks are an essential service to meet the immediate needs. The people running, working and volunteering to keep food banks open has meant far fewer Canadians have gone hungry, and for that we are extremely grateful.
If you can, please consider donating food, money or time to your local food bank, not just over the holidays but any time of the year. Your donations can make a big difference.
Cover Photo: Feed Ontario’s COVID-19 Emergency Food Box Program
Farmwork to Feed Canada (F2FC) is a national volunteer not-for-profit initiative by Canadian communication professionals, students, and recent graduates in communications. F2FC collaborates with farmers, and agri-businesses amid COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges to Canada’s food supply and food security, to engage Canadians, pro bono, with compelling stories about their food system and build support for Canada’s farmers, food producers, and their essential skilled workers.