“Clients tell us they are considering medical assisted death or suicide because they can no longer live in absolute poverty.”
I have been working at the Mississauga Food Bank for 13 years. I started as director of marketing and fund development, and now I will be five years as chief executive officer. Our work has never been more urgent than it is now. We have seen a 60 percent increase in demand since the pandemic began. In the past, we were proactively growing, expanding our services to serve more people and reaching out to those living in poverty who didn’t know a food bank was available to support them. That’s very different from how we’ve had to adjust recently.
Throughout the pandemic, the need for food banks has steadily increased. We used to serve about 19,000 people a year; now there are more than 30,000. In October we had the highest demand on record with more than 11,000 visitors at one of the food banks in our network.
For the past 12 months, as food prices have risen, every month has broken records. On average, we have seen a 30% increase in new food bank users during the pandemic. Every day, people access our services: about 75 percent of people who use the food bank have a source of income, either through employment, welfare, or disability benefits. And this is the first time we’ve had a significant number of people tell us that it’s the cost of food, specifically, that has pushed them over the edge. A father of five who comes to our food bank told us that even when they have money to buy their own groceries, they end up leaving half the cart behind because things are too expensive. The weight of bills combined with rising grocery prices is overwhelming. Like many people living in poverty, this family is stuck in a loop: they either earn enough money to disqualify them from any support when they still need it, or they don’t earn enough to cover basic expenses.
In the past, for people living in poverty, there was still plenty of room to cut costs in certain places, shake things up, and maybe make ends meet. But now that things cost so much more than they used to, people don’t have that little bit to borrow from one pocket to put into another. On average, grocery prices have risen about 12 percent, the biggest increase since the early 1980s, and staple foods have become even more expensive. This year alone, the price of fresh fruit and meat has risen 10 percent. People have no choice but to turn to food banks.
Rising costs also make it difficult for us to buy food. We have agreements with wholesalers and sellers, but they are not immune to inflation. We restrict our purchases to basic, high-demand items and make substitutions when necessary. For example, we buy turkeys for the holiday season every year; We bought the same number of turkeys this year, but we spent 20 percent more than we normally would. We always need milk, and it has already had two price increases this year. Struggling under the brunt of supply chain issues, vendors are saving their supply to meet their grocery store contracts, reducing what is available to sell to food banks.
Many people don’t know that food banks are not fully funded by the government. Government grants only account for one to two percent of our funding: for example, we receive a $100,000 annual grant from the Peel regional government. While that may sound like a lot, it only covers 1.6 percent of our $6.1 million annual operating cost. During the pandemic, we have received more funding from the government to help us respond to the increasing demand for food. We received a $500,000 grant from the Peel region last year and will receive it again next year. However, for the most part, we rely on donations and fundraising to cover costs. For the fiscal year ending in May, we will receive 50% of our funds from individual donations, 20% from businesses, 10% from community fundraising events and initiatives, 8% from foundations, and the remaining 12% from elsewhere, including government grants.
The community keeps us afloat, but that support isn’t always where we need it. We have seen food donations decrease in recent years, in addition to increased demand for food. Before the pandemic, we spent $250,000 a year on food, and now we spend up to $1.1 million. We were lucky to receive amazing donations from the community early on in the pandemic. That continues to subsidize our current costs, but we are not receiving enough donations to meet the demand for food at this time.
Meanwhile, the government has weakened our social safety net to a discouraging degree. At the provincial level, Ontario Works (our welfare system) and the Ontario Disability Support Program are sadly underfunded. We are at the point where clients in these programs tell us that they are considering medically assisted death or suicide because they can no longer live in absolute poverty. A client of our Food Bank 2 home delivery program told a member of our staff that he is thinking of committing suicide because he is so tired of suffering poverty. Another customer asked if we knew how to apply for MAID for the same reasons. We cannot underestimate the effect that poverty has on someone’s mental health. Our clients live with constant worry and reduce expenses on necessary items such as medicines, fresh food or warm clothes; Constantly living under that stress takes a mental, emotional, and physical toll.
I don’t know how to make the alarm sound louder. When people start telling us that they are going to end their lives because they can no longer live in poverty, it is clear that we have failed them.
Charities like ours try to reach people who are falling through the cracks. But charities depend on the generosity of others, and if even they feel pressured, people will go hungry. We are hopeful that our holiday drive will raise $1.7 million and 450,000 pounds of food, and we are grateful for Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie’s support of that drive. But even if we reach that goal, that will only keep us going until Easter, when we will need more money and more food.
Until now, the government’s approach to fighting inflation has been to keep businesses afloat, because the idea is to keep money flowing and supporting workers. And that’s just not working. We need to offset inflation in a way that doesn’t hurt the people we’re trying to help.
It takes all of us to feed our hungry neighbors, and this year is no different. But beyond supporting your local food bank, it will take all of us advocating for policies that reduce poverty so that one day we no longer need food banks.
— As I told Liza Agrba