Jessica Bell MPP, University–Rosedale

Government of Ontario

Here's what it's like to run a food bank in 2022

Published on September 16, 2022

This is what it’s like to run a Food Bank in 2022

This week, I interviewed Shauna Harris, the executive director of Spadina Fort York Community Care Program to better understand how food insecurity is hurting Ontarians, including University Rosedale residents.  The purpose of this interview is to draw attention to the fact that social assistance rates are too low to live on. The poverty in Toronto is dire, and getting worse. This is an edited version of our interview.

Who do you serve?

We deliver food to 500 people who are house-bound, and we also run three food banks at Alexandra Park, Seeds of Hope, and St Lawrence Market. In total, we serve about 1800 people.   

We mostly serve black, indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC). We started out servicing seniors, people recovering from illnesses, disabled people, and our unhoused neighbours, but due to the rising costs with food, gas, and housing, it’s becoming more families and kids, and working people.  

How did you begin?

MPP Chris Glover got a call from a constituent who asked for food to be delivered to Portland Place, which is a supportive housing unit for people with cognitive disabilities.  We stepped up.  We thought it would be like SARS and we would just need to provide help for a few weeks, but it wasn’t. Then the encampments started springing up and we recognized that we needed to step up to keep unhoused people alive. Then we recognized that seniors were in crisis, so we stepped up there. And then the pandemic evolved, and families we realized, were in crisis too.

Has the need changed since the pandemic?

The need is growing so quickly.  Daily Bread calculated that food bank usage went up by 300% in June.   The need has increased because there hasn’t been an increase in supports of any kind, including Old Age Security, Ontario Disability Support Payments, and Ontario Works. Coupled with the rising costs of rent, the rising cost of food, it’s become the perfect storm.

How is your organization coping?

We’re turning a lot of people away.  We don’t have enough volunteer drivers to deliver the food because the cost of gas is so high.  We use the bike brigade who deliver food on bikes, but there’s not enough volunteers. 

There’s also been a decrease in food donations by about a quarter. The grocery stores and partner agencies that work with us are buying less and sharing less because of rising food costs.  We’ve run out of food, and we must ration what people can take when they visit. We used to give people a whole carton of eggs, now you’ll get two or three when they’re available. 

How is the community coping with food scarcity?

Food scarcity changes people’s behavior, so it’s an incredibility stressful situation.  Our food bank at St Lawrence Market opens at 5pm and people start lining up at 2pm. We have families who don’t eat because they want to feed their children, and seniors living on crackers.  There’s higher demand overall for more affordable products in general, so there’s nothing available in the supermarkets for people who can’t afford anything else but the cheapest products, like pasta. The struggle is to provide healthy options for people when life is so unaffordable.

What solutions do you advocate for?

We need to address the root causes of poverty and hunger. That means increasing social assistance rates.  We need stronger rent control, and the rent-geared-to-income calculation (that determines how much subsidy a person can get from the government to help them pay their rent) isn’t working because it doesn’t cover rent.  People are making choices to pay their rent or eat today.  The government relies on mutual aid networks to meet the need, but we are not able to do it because the gap is too big.  Food agencies need more support from government, and there needs to be price caps on food so it’s affordable. 

Here's how you can contribute to Spadina Fort York Community Cares and help their work.

Please send a message to Minister Fullerton calling for a doubling of social assistance rates. 

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