Food banks’ demand surges amid COVID-19. Now they worry about long-term pressures

The Saskatoon Food Bank is in the middle of its major fundraiser season. File / Global News

As the outbreak of the novel coronavirus continues to pummel the economy, Canada’s food banks are bracing themselves for a surge in demand higher than what they saw during the 2008 economic downturn — and an uncertain, long road to recovery.

The use of food banks increased 28 per cent across the country during the Great Recession, according to Food Banks Canada CEO Chris Hatch — and in just in the last few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, demand jumped 20 per cent on average.

“We expect that demand to keep going up and up and up,” Hatch told Global News.

As the spread of COVID-19 forces businesses to close and lay off employees, Hatch projected demand at the 3,000 food agencies his organization represents could surge to 30 or even 40 per cent from pre-pandemic levels, which averaged 1.1 million visits per month.

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The pressures vary by region, however. The Daily Bread in Toronto, one of the country’s largest food banks, saw use at its main location spike upwards of 53 per cent over the last month, according to CEO Neil Hetherington.

To help food banks and other food security groups cope with the increased pressure, the federal government announced on April 3 it would give them $100-million. Food Banks Canada is getting half that funding and it marks an “unprecedented investment” for the food bank system, according to Hatch.

Despite this, he anticipates the worst is yet to come and his organization will have to request even more federal assistance from the government before the year is up. Hetherington agreed.

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“This is a stopgap and a very needed one,” Hetherington said. “I think that there will be a need to ask the government to reconsider the amount and look to increase that.”

An email statement attributed to Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said the government is “committed to ensuring that all Canadians continue to have access to safe and high-quality food.”

“We will continue to evaluate as the situation evolves and stand ready to fill the gaps,” Bibeau said.

“We trust that the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit, which Canadians across the country have begun receiving this month, will relieve some of the pressure food banks have been feeling since this crisis began.”

As long as that benefit flows quickly to those who apply for it, the emergency income should help, Hatch agreed.

“The quicker that gets in people’s hands, I think [it] will stem really long line-ups at the food bank and a spike in demand,” he said.

Ottawa Food Bank CEO Michael Maidment said the extraordinary circumstances right now make it hard to predict how much government funding and how much fundraising “is going to be enough” over the course of the pandemic.

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Keeping shelves stocked, staff healthy top concerns during the pandemic

As of Wednesday, about $70 million of the funding had been allocated, according to the minister’s statement. Hatch said the money will go where it’s needed most and will be spent on food.

Amid a disrupted supply chain and a decrease in physical community food drives, Hatch said his “biggest concern” is keeping shelves stocked as the pandemic drags on.

“The food is not being replenished fast enough in the food banks,” he said.

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But the food supply and funding isn’t the only problem food banks are facing. The threat of the virus and orders to practice physical distancing have both affected how food banks deliver supplies to those in need and cramped their ability to rely on volunteers.

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Local food banks said they’re worried about keeping their remaining staff healthy and reducing their exposure while serving a growing number of people.

“There’s only so many people that can work from home … so my main concern is if somebody gets sick, if somebody catches the virus, then we’re in trouble,” said David Long, CEO of the Greater Vancouver Food Bank.

Food banks worry high demand will endure beyond pandemic

In the long term, food bank executives said they’re concerned about the post-pandemic period and how long the higher demand for food bank services will persist.

“Will it come back down?” Hatch said. “We know that people living in poverty, living with food insecurity, precarious employment, hourly wage jobs, no benefits, seasonal work, contract work … they’re the first to get hit during these kinds of downturns and they’re the last ones to come out in a recovery.

“We saw this in 2008 and then we’re going to see it again in 2020.”

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The number of food bank visits never recovered to pre-recession levels nationally, Hatch said.

This created “a new normal” for food banks, said Maidment, who added he’s also worried about what lies ahead for his organization.

“We’re being called on right now to support in an emergency, but we know that we’ll be called on to help as the economy is recovering,” Maidment said.

“So how long will it take? Will it be a year, will it be two years? Will it potentially be longer?”

Emergency financial help will help keep food banks face the challenges in the months ahead but it’s not a long-term fix for growing food insecurity in Canada, said Hetherington.

Asked what long-term measures and supports the government is exploring to ensure food banks don’t face another “new normal” after the pandemic, Bibeau touted a $50-million local food infrastructure fund that the government launched last August to support community-led projects.”

Recognizing that access to food is also linked to finances, the minister added that the government is “focused on making life more affordable and helping those who need it the most” through measures like the Canada Child Benefit and the Guaranteed Income Supplement.

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“We know there’s still more work to do to help Canadian families to reduce poverty and food insecurity and our government is committed to continuing that important work,” Bibeau said.

Coming out of the pandemic, Hetherington suggested all levels of government should prioritize investing in building affordable housing and re-examining their social safety nets, he argued.

“[In] 2008, maybe that lesson wasn’t learned quite as significantly. This one’s hitting us all,” Hetherington said.

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