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Food banks struggle in a pandemic world

Food banks have been struggling to keep up with the rising demand from low-income families in Ontario. The COVID-19 pandemic has made a stressful situation even worse.

According to Feed Ontario’s newest hunger report, a record 592,308 people made over 3.5 million visits to food banks in Ontario in 2020. That is up sharply from 2019, when only 510,438 people visited Ontario’s food banks.

With a roughly 14 per cent increase in visits and a decline in donations due to the pandemic restrictions on how people can donate to food banks, the COVID-19 pandemic has had wide-ranging effects on not only food banks but also the people in Ontario who rely on them.

“It’s an agonizing decision for families to know that they must ensure their kids are not homeless, however in the process the children are hungry,” said Cathy Haan, the executive director of Food4Kids Hamilton. “Many families have dropped down to one income because of the pandemic or illness, or they have lost their jobs completely and therefore have no way of continuing to support the kids in the family.”

Early in the pandemic, COVID-19 restrictions were put in place on food banks in order to keep people safe from the virus. Restrictions like social distancing, curbside pickup, staff and volunteer screening, and the use of mask and eye protection were used as safety measures against the virus. Most of these restrictions have eased but food banks are still feeling the effects of COVID-19 restrictions on the way they serve the public.

Photo of a blue sign, reminding people to keep 2 metres apart.
Early in the pandemic, COVID-19 restrictions on food banks were aimed at keeping people safe.

“Our organization has been affected in several ways,” Haan said. “We are no longer able to engage our volunteers on a weekly basis by inviting them into our space to pack and deliver food bags and as a result we had to immediately pivot to a new program model. [We are] providing grocery cards to kids via mail, directly to their homes.”

Even though COVID-19-related government programs that provided income and housing support to individuals who lost their jobs or had their hours reduced when the pandemic struck were helpful for many struggling families in Ontario, many people who are homeless or who didn’t meet the necessary number of working hours required, fell through the cracks. Now that most of these programs have ended and with rising inflation increasing prces for household goods, donations to food banks have decreased.

“Some of the reasons children go hungry in Ontario is because there is simply no way to provide adequate food in the home when a family is struggling financially,” Haan said. “Often a family must choose if they are going to pay the rent or pay for food,”

That’s why some food banks have found some creative ways to make sure that families don’t go hungry during this pandemic. “Due to the pandemic, schools have implemented a “remote learning” model and we have included remote learners in our grocery card program,” Haan said. “Every child learning remotely receives a bi-weekly grocery card in lieu of a food bag delivered to the school.”

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