Photo by Michael Swan

More people, less food for food banks

  • November 25, 2021

At 9 a.m. the line up for the St. Ann’s Church Food Bank in downtown Toronto stretches around the corner and back up to Gerrard Street. At 9:30 they’ve run out of milk and yogurt. At 10 more bags of pre-packed groceries are headed upstairs from the basement to restock tables where food bank patrons pick up their allotment for the week.

Mario D’Alimonte, who checks in the people coming into pick-up food, has seen the numbers swell over the last 20 months. He signs in three or four first-time food bank users a week. On Nov. 1 he checked in a record 150, despite the fact it was the day clients receive their Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program cheques. He has also seen how the food bank has to scrounge for food.

“You hate to send them away, especially for somebody who’s been standing in line for an hour,” he said.

So far, St. Ann’s hasn’t had to send anybody away empty-handed, but now they’re giving away more unhealthy foods of little nutritional value — potato chips and dollar store cookies — and less milk, cheese and vegetables.

“I hate giving food that I wouldn’t want myself,” said D’Alimonte.

D’Alimonte’s experience at the intake desk is being repeated across the Greater Toronto Area. In its annual Who’s Hungry report, The Daily Bread Food Bank reported Nov. 15 that Toronto recorded a record 1.45 million food bank visits in the year ending April 1. That’s a 47-per-cent increase compared to the year before and 1.5 times higher than the record set in 2010. There’s been a 61-per-cent increase in first-time clients at food banks.

“We’re seeing an increase even with the benefits the government was sending out,” said St. Ann’s parishioner Rick Gocool, who manages the inventory and volunteers at the food bank. “We’ve got more people, less food.”

Food donations are often simply the wrong food (Cheetos and chocolate bars) or too much of the same thing (pasta). They need cash to ensure clients are walking away with sources of protein, calcium and fibre — ingredients that can be made into a real meal.

St. Ann’s pastor Fr. Wilson Andrade pitches in wherever he can — in the basement packing bags, in the parking lot greeting clients. He misses the pre-COVID routine, when clients came into the basement, chose their own food instead of picking up pre-packed grocery bags and then got a fresh-cooked meal before they left.

But Andrade glories in the wealth of volunteers who show up to help out, getting the food in on Thursdays and Fridays, packing and distributing on Saturday mornings.
“This is a neighbourhood coming together,” he said. “Many of them are not even Christian or not Catholic. It doesn’t matter.”

What matters for Andrade is the people who need food.

At D’Alimonte’s intake desk, clients have to declare their birthdays so he can find them in the food bank’s database. As clients roll by, it’s clear many should be eligible for Old Age Security and the Canada Pension Plan. The majority born after 1956 are collecting OW or Disability. In Toronto, a single person on OW (what used to be known as welfare) collects $343 for basic needs and $390 in shelter allowance.

D’Alimonte estimates about 10 to 15 per cent of the clients have jobs.

Vee Fuhr has been coming to St. Ann’s both as a client and a volunteer for six years.

“This place saved my life,” she said.

As a trans woman on disability, she had been turned away and judged harshly at other food banks.

“I was not doing well. I had no money. I was shoplifting food and getting caught, because I’m not good at it,” Fuhr said.

It turned around when she started coming to St. Ann’s. Now she helps greet the clients and keeps the Saturday morning line in order, ensuring social distancing and good spirits among people who need food to get through the next week.

“I felt right at home here. The faith they have, they live and don’t talk about it. The compassion they have, they live. Anybody who needs help should come here. You develop connections with people you didn’t know you were connected with. This has become a community,” Fuhr said.

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