Orangeville Food Bank calls for government funding amid unprecedented demand

December 23, 2023   ·   0 Comments

By Sam Odrowski

At what point will Ontario’s food bank network collapse?

This is the question that leaders across the sector, including Orangeville Food Bank executive director Heather Hayes, are asking as demand skyrockets at a rate not seen since food banks were created in the 1980s.

“There are many food banks out there right now that aren’t sure they’re going to meet the need,” said Hayes.

Almost 70 per cent do not know if they’ll be able to feed everyone in need, according to Feed Ontario’s 2023 Hunger Report.

The Orangeville Food Bank is calling on the provincial and federal government to step up with funding for it and the nearly 5,000 hunger relief organizations across Canada who fight to keep people fed.

When Hayes started her role at the Orangeville Food Bank in 2015, she saw an average of 300 people a month. With that number quadrupling to roughly 1,200 per month this year, she said donations have carried them through, but government funding will be needed to keep pace with the exploding demand.

“To keep up with the need that we’re seeing versus the income that we need, I don’t know for how long it’s sustainable,” she said. “I’m ever grateful for the community that we live in but at some point, we need provincial and federal governments to come to the table to have a conversation with us.”

Hayes anticipates her organization will see a total of 1,400 people by the end of this month. And without any dramatic changes in government policy or the cost of living, she said it could rise to 3,000 over the next two years.

“But in two years I won’t have space to put 3,000 per month through the food bank,” Hayes noted.

Monthly food bank use in Ontario has doubled since 2019, and from November 2019 to November 2023, there has been an 87 per cent increase in the number of people accessing the Orangeville Food Bank, from 669 users to 1254. Across Dufferin County, one in five families is food insecure.

Hayes said she’s not asking for the provincial or federal government to fund her budget fully, but some level of consistent support would go a long way in keeping the local food bank viable. That is until the government implements policies so food banks are no longer needed.

“We all understand that policy change takes time. It’s often incremental. I don’t believe that somebody’s going to come tomorrow and put all the policies in place that we need in order to solve this problem,” Hayes said. “So until that point, we still have to figure out how to feed the people.”

Orangeville Council approved funding for the Orangeville Food Bank in the amount of $25,000 per year to help combat the recent rise in demand. The food bank has also put a request in with the County of Dufferin to receive $50,000 annually to offset some costs. Although that represents just 7 per cent of the food bank’s annual budget, so donations continue to be vital for its success.

With a continued increase in use expected over the next two years, the Orangeville Food Bank projects it will need $2 million to cover a year of operations.

“That’s a lot of money for community like Dufferin to raise without any higher level of [government] support,” Hayes said. “I think that has to change.”

As demand grows at the Orangeville Food Bank, programs that bring food into the community, like the “Pay What You Can Market” or Community Vending Machine, will become increasingly important.

Ultimately, the goal is to look at ways of providing people with dignified access to food to prevent them from needing to go to the food bank.

Orangeville Food Bank clients are allocated 36 lbs of food per person per month, but the rise in demand is stretching the organization’s food budget to the limit.

“Donations are up over last year but it is not keeping up with what’s going out the front door,” said Hayes. “Last month we distributed 45,000 lbs of food.”

An average month before the most recent demand spike would require 30,000 to 36,000 lbs.

In a typical year, the Orangeville Food Bank waiting room would be full of food lined up on skids right now due to all the holiday donations, but this is no longer the case because the food is going out so quickly.

“That’s just not something that we’ve seen before,” said Hayes.

From April 1, 2022, to March 31, 2023, food banks across Ontario saw almost 5.9 million visits from over 800,000 unique individuals. This represents a 101 per cent increase in visits over pre-pandemic levels and a 60 per cent increase in unique users since 2019.

Food banks were designed as a temporary solution to the economic crisis in the 1980s, with the first one opening in Edmonton, Alberta, in 1981.

“Food banks were always meant to be an emergency, and emergencies end. But we haven’t ended,” Hayes said.

Unprecedented levels of inflation combined with a lack of affordable housing, high interest rates, and stagnating wages are pushing many employed people to food banks like never before.

While employment levels in Ontario remain low, at just 6.1 per cent, twice as many people are accessing food banks now than they were following the 2008 economic crisis when the unemployment rate peaked at 9 per cent.

Two-thirds of people visiting food banks in the province have less than $100 per month to spend on groceries, according to Feed Ontario’s 2023 Hunger Report.

“It is not unusual for us to have people coming in and saying that at the end of the month, they have $30 leftover for groceries,” Hayes said of the situation locally. “We’ve all been to the grocery store lately, $30 isn’t a bag of groceries, it’s a few things you can carry in your hands, and that’s supposed to last a month.”

The financial challenges that people are currently facing due to the rising cost of living can be detrimental to their mental health. Hayes said people are more stressed than ever before trying to keep up with their bills and expenses.

“You can just see it in their shoulders; they’re weighted down,” Hayes told the Citizen. “Moms in the waiting room, rocking in their chairs quietly, I bet they don’t even know they’re rocking. They’re just kind of hoping for the best to try to get through this.

“It’s pretty tough out there right now.” 

Feed Ontario’s 2023 Hunger report noted that “On the individual level, food banks have heard from visitors on ODSP [Ontario Disability Support Program] that some are considering pursuing Medical Assistance in Dying [MAiD] because they cannot bear to continue living in grinding poverty any longer.”

Two social programs that many unemployed food bank users utilize – Ontario Works (OW) and ODSP – pay $733 and $1,308 per month, respectively. These monthly payments are supposed to cover housing, utilities, food, clothing and all the other necessities a person would need to survive. Hayes says these amounts of money don’t come near what is required to get by under the current economic conditions. 

Someone on OW who finds work can only make an extra $200 per month before their income is clawed back at 50 per cent, and they lose certain benefits to help with work-related purchases. 

Hayes says these programs are essentially legislated poverty.

“The government has put in the policies in place to make sure that you will always stay there [in poverty], and there is no avenue for you to get anywhere else,” Hayes said. “That has got to be crushing people’s spirits right now.”

Going forward, the Orangeville Food Bank is having capacity talks with its board members to see how it can grapple with increasing demand in the New Year.

Hayes said she’d encourage people to help the food bank advocate for government funding to address the rising demand. 

“As the need continues to grow, it is a heavier weight than ever to carry,” she said. “I hope that when people are thinking about food banks, they also think about the policy piece so that when you see your elected officials, whether it is a lower tier, upper-tier municipality, provincial or federal, those conversations are being had.”

Hayes added, “We cannot keep up with the pace of growth at the food bank, and there will come a time where I have to look at a mom and say, I don’t have milk for your kids. And I promised myself I’d never ever do that, so I will work until the end to see that we do not have to do that.

“But our elected officials now have to step up and figure out how they’re going to support us.”

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