Imagine being one meal away from hunger, or one paycheque away from homelessness.
That is the reality for thousands of Canadians each year. And COVID-19 restrictions have put even more stress on those who are already struggling, due to job loss, economic instability, illness or disability.
In the new 2020 ‘Who’s Hungry?’ report, a collaboration between the Daily Bread Food Bank and the North York Harvest Food Bank, looking at the changing rates of poverty and food insecurity in Toronto, the pandemic has only served to exacerbate a growing problem: too many people and not enough food, or affordable housing.
76% of new clients report that they began accessing food banks due to COVID-19
76% of clients who were working prior to COVID-19 reported job loss
38% were worried about eviction in the coming months
43% of adults and 22% of children went hungry at least once a week
Let those statistics sink in.
The most vulnerable among us are the ones who are most inequitably impacted. We have to do something. Together, we have the power to change this.
Read my Q&A with Ryan Noble, Executive Director of the North York Harvest Food Bank, below, to find out how we can all help our communities, by supporting our local food banks.
Ryan, how big a need is there right now for the food and services you provide?
The pandemic has intensified a crisis of food insecurity that already existed in many neighbourhoods across northern Toronto. Since the start of the pandemic, North York Harvest's members have seen a 45% increase in visits compared to the same time period last year. Last month, that number had grown to 64%.
The recent 'Who’s Hungry’ report found that visits to the food bank were up 51% in August over the year prior. So how are you managing that increased volume?
That figure represents overall usage across the entire city. But it's important to note that many of the agencies that used to provide service have closed for pandemic-related health and safety reasons. So we are seeing a dramatic increase in demand that needs to be served by a reduced number of agencies and volunteers. It is a very difficult situation. We have had to do pop-up food banks at libraries, community centres, arenas - places that provide the space and accessibility we need to operate safely.
How would you describe the community you serve?
Unfortunately, food bank usage is highly racialized and people who identify as Black, Latin, Middle Eastern or Indigenous are disproportionately represented at food banks when compared to the general population. Single adults also disproportionately use food banks which is an indication of the high cost of living, particularly with regards to housing in this city and how difficult it is to afford to live here on a single income.
What would happen to a lot of these families if your services were not available?
Our clients tell us overwhelmingly that they need to skip meals to pay other expenses, most often rent, transportation and phone bills. For many people, food is the only "flexible" item in their household budget. You really should not skip meals because it will lead to worse health outcomes in the long-term, but the reality is that it is easier to skip a meal than to not pay your rent. Many parents will skip meals to make sure that their children have enough to eat. It's heartbreaking to think of people having to make those decisions. A food bank can't change all of that, but hopefully we can provide some assistance.
What inspired you to become the Executive Director of the North York Harvest Food Bank and what do you enjoy most about your job?
I never intended to become the Executive Director of North York Harvest. I was a member of our Board of Directors and our former Executive Director had to resign unexpectedly for personal reasons. We were doing important work and this really is an incredible organization with amazing people, and I thought I had something to offer in this role. So I resigned from the Board and put myself forward for consideration. I am glad that I did.
How can we all get involved and help? And what do you need most, currently?
Food banks like North York Harvest rely on community support to do the work we do. We do not receive any ongoing government funding so we are always in need of donations. Donations from thousands of individuals form the backbone of our organization, so I would encourage anybody who can donate either food or funds to consider doing so. But we also want to develop long-term solutions to food insecurity and poverty, so if you do support the work that we do, I would ask you to consider using research like the ‘Who's Hungry’ report to spark a conversation with your friends about poverty in this city or to reach out to your elected officials to let them know that you expect poverty reduction to be at the centre of our pandemic response and economic rebuild. If we are going to ever reduce the need for food banks in Toronto, we will need policy solutions such as increased social assistance rates, higher wages and more affordable housing to be put in place. Everyone can help to influence our political leaders to take more action in this regard.
Donate to Canadian Food Banks on the Frontlines of COVID-19 (CanadaHelps.org)