Ontario’s food-security groups are getting creative during COVID-19

Many organizations are struggling with tight budgets and new restrictions — here’s how they’re finding new ways to feed their communities
By Diane Peters - Published on Mar 25, 2020
The food bank at Toronto’s Stop Community Food Centre is seeing increased volumes and gave out 127 hampers and 310 takeout meals last Thursday alone. (facebook.com/TheStop)



On the morning of March 17, at Parkdale Food Centre, a food bank in Ottawa, clients were lined up outside the door, hoping the facility would open as usual at 8:45 a.m. for breakfast and conversation. “Our chef was there, and he had to turn them away,” says Karen Secord, the non-profit’s executive director.

The centre’s usual routine of serving frequent community meals and breakfast and sit-down lunches three days a week has come to a halt due to COVID-19. The centre’s serve-yourself food bank has also shut down, and so have other projects, such as cooking workshops. Secord and her staff of 14 are now offering takeout lunches instead of sit-down meals and driving the centre’s van around town delivering hampers of food.

The previous Friday, Secord and her staff had decided on these new approaches to feed the centre’s clients — about 1,200 people access the food bank on a monthly basis, and that’s not in times of crisis — as safely as possible. “We don’t want to have people in our space,” says Secord, noting that a number of the centre’s clients already have underlying health conditions and that many of the organization’s 250 active volunteers are seniors. “We just don’t want to risk any of them getting sick.”

It’s a similar story across the province. Food-security organizations are getting creative with how they operate during the global coronavirus pandemic. They’re expecting hunger to spike, and they’re under pressure to stretch their already tight budgets. “Even in the best of times, people are struggling to put food on the table,” says Carolyn Stewart, executive director of Feed Ontario, which serves as the association for 130 food banks and other hunger-related groups in the province. During the panic buying of grocery and personal-care items last week, she says, low-income Ontarians were left out: “People who live in poverty are unable to stockpile extra food or medicine.”

The province’s food banks are already busy: 510,000-plus people — 33 per cent of them children — visited them more than 3 million times between April 1, 2018, and March 31, 2019, according to Feed Ontario. Visitors were up 1.8 per cent from a year before. And those on the front lines anticipate that more people will need food banks in the coming weeks as they lose their jobs and try to get by on employment insurance, the federal government’s new program for those in the gig economy — or nothing at all, if they qualify for neither.

Like Parkdale in Ottawa, Toronto’s the Stop Community Food Centre has suspended many of its programs: for example, it closed its newest and smallest site (social distancing was not an option there) and adjusted its food-bank operations, which used to entail people coming in picking what they liked and chatting with staff. “They come in three at a time, get their hamper, and then leave,” says executive director Leigh Godbold of the adjusted process. “It’s a little less dignified. We don’t like to give handouts of food, and we’re struggling with that.” Its three-day-a-week food bank is seeing increased volumes and gave out 127 hampers and 310 takeout meals last Thursday alone. Godbold says that 24 of the households who came to the food bank had never visited before, and she expects that trend will continue and grow.

Other groups are stepping up. Black Creek Community Farm had been preparing for a March Break camp and a maple-syrup day when COVID-19 hit. After cancelling both, and closing the eight-acre farm in north Toronto to the public, director Leticia Deawuo and her staff decided to help those in their community stay fed.

Deawuo called up FoodShare, a food-security organization in Toronto that, among other things, offers a delivery service called the Good Food Box. Staff there agreed to ship out 100 or so food boxes on the farm’s tab to any new customers. Black Creek put out an online application form on March 13, and, when Deawuo woke up Saturday morning, she had 200 applications. She called FoodShare, which told her not to worry; it could deal with the increased demand.

In all, more than 2,000 families have requested boxes. With almost nothing in the farm’s budget to cover such an expense — family-size boxes cost $22 each — Black Creek began accepting donations on its website, and FoodShare set up a Canada Helps donation page to defray the cost. 

For the Toronto-based non-profit Feed It Forward, money is also concern. Chef Jagger Gordon normally self-funds his organization — which works with reclaimed food, offering it at its pay-what-you-can grocery store in the city’s west end — but he’s seeking sponsors now. Gordon has an industrial kitchen where his volunteers cook up ready-to-eat meals, such as soups and stews, and they distribute about 1,000 of these a week to people in need across the GTA.

Together with a national council made up largely of chefs, Gordon is cooking up (and then freezing) as many meals as he can. “When the food banks can’t cope, we’ll be ready to go,” he says. Volunteers will drop meals off to contacts in the community, who will then distribute them. Since many restaurants are now shuttered, Gordon and his fellow chefs have tapped into their service-industry contacts and are cooking in disused kitchens. “I’m trying to keep my volunteers in small groups,” he says.

For food-insecurity organizations, keeping staff, volunteers, and clients apart physically upends key aspects of their services. “Our whole mandate is we use food as a tool,” says Godbold. “It’s about community connection and providing referral.” When people pick up their plastic bag full of goods on food-bank day at the Stop, staff hand over written information (printed in multiple languages) about COVID-19 and local services. As libraries are closed and some clients lack home internet, she says, access to vital information can be limited: “Many have no idea what’s going on, and it’s scary.” Secord says that she wishes she could keep offering the kind of face-to-face support and sense of community that’s long been a core function of her group: “The anxiety level for people with low income is through the roof.”

For now, Secord and others are focused on getting food out to an increasing number of people as monetary and food donations bottom out because benefactors are worrying about their own paycheques and neglecting to make contributions at grocery stores while they stockpile for themselves.

“People who operate food banks are the most committed people I know,” says Stewart. “On a regular basis, they do so much with so little. And they’re stepping up to the plate again.”

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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