Over 550,000 meals were served at the five Mustard Seed locations across Alberta and British Columbia in 2022, including this shelter in downtown Calgary. That is expected to grow exponentially this year. Photo courtesy The Mustard Seed

Solutions sought for soaring meal needs

  • November 15, 2023

“Give hope today. Every $5.38 you donate provides a meal and other resources for someone in need.”

This is the short humanitarian message gracing The Mustard Seed website homepage. It is a charitable marketing staple for the Christian non-profit organization caring for the homeless and poor in five cities across Alberta and British Columbia.

However, from 2019-2022, the message stated it only cost $3.51 to feed a guest and provide them shelter, health and wellness support. Considering the Mustard Seed served over 550,000 meals, housed 454 people and provided health and wellness care for 60,000 people in 2022 — the 2023 tally will likely exceed these lofty figures — this $1.87 increase in the donation message is dramatic.

A difficult economic landscape, coupled with sky-high demand for The Mustard Seed services, creates a difficult daily reality for the organization set to celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2024.

“Day-to-day has been challenging as of late,” said Dave Conrad, The Mustard Seed’s senior director of community and volunteer engagement. “Just to give you one example: our shelter in Calgary has a capacity of 370 people. Typically, during the summer, we see that number dip down to 200 or below. We have been at, and over, capacity since June of this year. We have been approaching 400 people at the shelter each night.

“Alongside that we have seen an increase in the meals needed, and the increased costs for the meals have been a challenge for us. Just in September alone, we provided 52,000 meals across all of our cities.” 

Amid all the difficult food-related headlines, there are rays of hope and relief. ShareLife, the charitable fundraising arm of the Archdiocese of Toronto, has distributed over $600,000 to parish-based food banks and meal programs and agency food programs overseen by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Toronto.

“ShareLife recognized the need at this time to help with any challenges in people receiving their basic necessities,” said Arthur Peters, the executive director of ShareLife and the archdiocese’s director of development. “Because of the generous support of our parishioners, we are able to make these contributions.”

Still The Mustard Seed’s difficult situation is echoed by the many other Canadian non-profits serving the impoverished and homeless as World Day of the Poor is marked on Nov. 19. Food Banks Canada’s HungerCount provides a snapshot of 2,388 food banks annually and counted over 1.93 million people visiting a food bank during March 2023. That’s a 32-per-cent increase in total visits from 2022, 78.5-per-cent above the 2019 numbers.

There are some other key points of data in this report worth noting:

  • Thirty-three per cent of food bank users are children while only representing 20 per cent of the population;
  • Single-adult households, while only accounting for 29.3 per cent of the population, account for 43.8 per cent of the households accessing food banks;
  • The percentage of single adults with children using food banks is 17.3 even though they make up only 8.7 per cent of the Canadian populace;
  • Eight per cent of food bank clients are senior citizens, a noticeable bump from the 6.8 per cent outlined in the 2019 report; and
  • There were a total of 3,820,925 meals and snacks — not including food hampers — served during March 2023.

Overall Food Banks Canada gave Canada a middling D+ grade for its handling of poverty in 2023. The organization reported that 42.6 per cent of Canadians are “feeling worse off compared to last year,” and the country is saddled with an 18.4-per-cent national food insecurity rate.

While the plight of food banks and homeless shelters always receives perennial media coverage each year, 2023 has seen school food initiatives in the spotlight. The Breakfast Club of Canada said Canada is the only G-7 country without a national food program or national standards. This situation could potentially change in the future as the House of Commons considers Bill C-322, an act to develop a national framework to establish a school food program. Second reading debate occurred on Nov. 1, with a vote expected in coming weeks.

Liberal MP Serge Cormier, the sponsor of the bill, said this framework will form the basis for discussions with stakeholders across the country to design a program that serves every child in every school if he or she desires nutritious food. He touted the potential benefits.

“A national school food policy will support local food production, create jobs, grow the economy and help us achieve food security and sustainability,” said Cormier. “When it is rolled out, a national school food program will also provide much-needed relief for struggling families who are often faced with difficult decisions when providing for the needs of their children. These decisions might see a family cut back on its grocery order or look at less nutritious food options, because they cannot afford what they want and need.”

The NDP signaled support for the legislation, but Conservative and Bloc Québécois MPs responding to Cormier noted that education matters — including school food programs — are constitutionally the domain of the provinces.

In the meantime, the school-run programs continue trying to provide students with the nourishment they need to learn.

Gail Briand-Santo, a parent rep, and Lucy Goncalves, a teacher, have co-chaired the St. Raymond Elementary School breakfast program in Mississauga, Ont., which has been offered in different iterations in recent years.

“We have had it where our Knights of Columbus would come in and cook breakfast for the children in the morning,” said Goncalves. “Last year, Gail and I did a grab-and-go bag three days a week. This year, we are only doing it two days a week because of funding. We sent out permission forms to the parents, and we have received 101 slips back out of 300 kids. We are seeing more families opt into the program because everything is more expensive and there is food insecurity at home.

“A lot of kids are coming to school, I find, without eating breakfast. They don’t necessarily have enough food. I had a student come down to the office at lunch and say, ‘I only had a banana left in my lunch. I ate it and I’m still hungry.’ Since her permission slip was signed, we were able to give her some fruit and a granola bar from the breakfast program to supplement her lunch. She ate her lunch at 10 o’clock snack time since she didn’t have breakfast.”

Briand-Santo said a national food program “could definitely benefit all, because it’s not only people who can’t afford (food), but also Moms and Dads that are going to work, and kids are managing themselves to get ready for school and they don’t (necessarily) grab the right food.”

Both Briand-Santo and Goncalves said kids deprived of adequate food struggle to focus during class.