Holiday season marred by food insecurity across the city

By Nina Badwal
– December 2021 –

(Photo: Daily Bread Food Bank)

The holiday season is upon us and food insecurity in Toronto is getting worse.  According to a report from the Daily Bread and North York Harvest food banks, there were 1.45 million client visits to food banks between April 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021 – representing a 47 percent increase compared to the previous year.  

“Food bank clients are a diverse group; some of the biggest demographic groups that we see accessing food banks are single working age individuals, often people with disabilities, as well as people who are renting,” said Sacha Michna, Senior Manager of  Community Partnerships and Events at the Daily Bread Food Bank. 

The Who’s Hungry 2021 report also states, for the first time, new clients using Toronto food banks outnumbered existing users.  Michna said when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, there was a 200 percent increase in new clients at the height of the first wave. Rising unemployment and underemployment, he said, were big reasons for people using food banks for the first time.  But he added that existing clients who rely on fixed incomes like social assistance, pensions or other programs and services, struggled even more to make ends meet.

“We’re seeing inflation increasing, and when we were going through the really heavy lockdowns, access to community supports and services were also declining – so smaller and smaller safety nets for people who were already accessing food banks.  So we saw increased usage from existing clients as well.”

Along with having a food bank onsite at their south Etobicoke location, the Daily Bread Food Bank delivers food to its network of agencies and food programs in Toronto.  Over the past year, Michna said the Daily Bread Food Bank delivered about 17 million pounds of food to food programs across the city – about a 30 percent increase from the previous year.  

Aside from financial donations, he said the biggest food item needs are staple items like plain rice and pasta, canned fish and meat, canned vegetables and fruits, canned soups and stews, peanut butter, canned or dried beans, and baby food and formula.  The Daily Bread Food Bank is hoping to raise 9.5 million dollars during its holiday campaign this year, and about 570,000 pounds of food donations.  

Food insecurity in St. James Town exacerbated by pandemic

St. James Town is a densely populated high-rise community in downtown Toronto.  In a 2016 neighbourhood profile, the City of Toronto listed the population at 18,615.  Today, it is estimated that at least 25,000 residents live on the 32.1 acres of land.  The neighbourhood consists of a sizable number of newcomers, seniors and low-income earners – many of whom were already facing food insecurity before the pandemic hit.  

Toronto Public Health defines food insecurity as “inadequate or insecure access to food due to lack of money” and the agency says it affects almost 1 in 5 Toronto households.  

Nayanthi Wijesuriya is an intake and client engagement lead at the St. James Town Community Corner, an outreach hub that provides health and social services to residents of St. James Town.  She said at the onset of the pandemic, The Corner collaborated with its partner agencies within the St. James Town Providers’ Network, and came up with various food program initiatives to address the issue.  

“We ran a temporary small food bank, gave monthly grocery baskets and prepared meals.”  She said 28,000 meals were cooked up by the neighbourhood’s catering collective from March 2020 to December 2020.  The City of Toronto provided funding for the initiative until June 2021, when the program ended.  

                              Nayanthi Wijesuriya is an intake and client engagement lead
                              at the St. James Town Community Corner.  

Wijesuriya believes food insecurity in St. James Town could be tackled by having “an assigned space” big enough for a food bank and a large scale kitchen; not only to store non-perishable food items, but a place where foods that are close to their expiry date can be used to make fresh and healthy meals.  

“You can make curries; make meals so the food items don’t go to waste and share with the community.  That kind of inclusive space will actually allow people to maximize food consumption and also not waste food.”  

In order for that idea to materialize, Wijesuriya said the community needs more funding and resources.  But St. James Town does not come under the Neighbourhood Improvement Area (NIA) designation.  NIA’s are given priority status on public funding for support services because they are considered communities with inequities.  The City’s initiative aims to strengthen social, economic and physical conditions in the designated neighbourhoods.  In 2019, Toronto City Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, who represents St. James Town (Ward 13-Toronto Centre), put forth a motion for City Council to review St. James Town for potential inclusion as a NIA.  Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the review has been delayed and is still in progress.  

Wijesuriya said, “Kids are going to school without breakfast and some might not have very healthy food in their lunch boxes.  If we want to make a healthy community, a vibrant community, food is something very important as the other things we focus on like mental health and physical health – to have overall good health, providing a meal is crucial.”

Michna acknowledged, “Even though a sense of normalcy is returning to the city now, there are tens of thousands of individuals and families that are living in poverty across the city and experiencing food insecurity.  The reality for those individuals is quite different.”

Food donations can be dropped off at any Toronto fire station or participating grocery store. You can also visit the Daily Bread Food Bank website at dailybread.ca to find out how you can help.  

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