Food security for thousands of families in Peel still a concern
As the spread of the novel coronavirus started to take its toll on thousands of people across the Region of Peel, a deeply concerning thought hung in the background: how will COVID-19 impact food security?
The problem across Brampton and Mississauga had already existed long before the pandemic was declared. Food security in the rapidly growing cities is a concern for more and more families facing rising housing costs and precarious employment, in a region whose immigrant population often struggles to find a footing.
A joint report from food banks, which included the Mississauga Food Bank (MFB), looking into the prevalence of hunger found deep “inequities in food security” exist in the Greater Toronto Area. “Opportunities to live a good life are increasingly constrained for residents in the GTA based on factors outside of the individual’s control, such as race and immigration status,” the report states. This, coupled with negative social and economic outcomes, such as a low level of education, represent the barriers faced by people most representative among those dependent on food banks.
Visits to food banks is on the rise across the GTA.
But a shift is now being seen. Gord Warren, the Chairman of St. Andrew’s Food Bank in Brampton, is now seeing a wider range of people, with varying circumstances, coming in. Due to a combination of factors, including the prolonged closures of businesses, decreased supply of food and problems in the distribution channels, there has been an increase in the number of residents relying on organizations to help provide food.
But they are also facing many of the same challenges.
St. Andrew’s is set up in partnership with Regeneration Outreach Community, a Brampton based organization, that has traditionally provided meals for individuals and families, as well as other services, many of them for the homeless. The food bank was originally operating out of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Downtown Brampton but was forced to shut its doors when the virus arrived here. “Without the help of Regeneration, we would have been overwhelmed and we would not have been able to assist the people,” Warren told The Pointer. The food bank was run by volunteers, many of whom have underlying health issues.
It also relied on funds coming through the Church as it’s not a sponsored charity on its own. Since the onset of the pandemic, funding for the food bank dropped between 60 and 70 percent, Warren said.
Many support services in Peel offering meals to those in need have been forced to close their doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Church has enough money to operate for two more months. Upwards of $1,200 a week is being put towards the operation by the Church, which is being used to buy supplies that provide a balanced diet for those in need. For example, a large recent donation of pasta brought in a staple for many meals. With the use of additional funds, ingredients that fill in the gaps can be purchased to provide nutritious meals.
Before its partnership, Warren said the food bank was handling between 400 and 500 families a month on its own. The partnership saw that number increase to 1,900 families in April, which is expected to grow as the pressures created by the pandemic continue. “In Southern Ontario, most families are two paychecks away from a food bank, and unfortunately, a lot of families have missed those two paychecks,” he said.
Regeneration has converted its thrift store into a food bank. Pre-pandemic, the organization did not run one, instead providing food through a community kitchen, which had to close because of ongoing social distancing restrictions, and services to those in need, as well as acting as a food distributor to food banks across Brampton.
But Ted Brown, Regeneration’s Chief Executive Officer, says closing St. Andrew’s food bank would create even more problems. Existing clients would have to scramble for alternatives and the need for food assistance would fall on other organizations already struggling as job losses outpace aid. “We didn't want that to be a gap because we had the capacity, we had the space,” Brown said. The emergency food bank is open Wednesday and Friday every week. This is in addition to the organization’s work with the City of Brampton to deliver food hampers to those who can’t afford groceries.
MFB also spread its operation. It set up a second emergency food bank that provides clients with a week’s worth of food. With the onset of the pandemic, MFB has seen a significant increase in demand, Joanna Burke, the Director of Marketing & Communications for the organization told The Pointer. The foundation, which also distributes food to other organizations within the city, saw a usage increase of 10 to 20 percent at these facilities.
Ted Brown, Regeneration’s Chief Executive Officer
MFB was also able to provide a $105,000 grant to help the organizations with ongoing costs. This can be used for purchasing food or assisting with operational costs, Burke said.
In Mississauga and Brampton, organizations said ongoing efforts to meet increased demand are possible because of the generosity shown by a wide range of community stakeholders, who have donated goods and money to help keep operations running.
But there are mounting questions about how long this can last, if the impacts of COVID-19 linger for a prolonged period, possibly for more than a year.
Larger funding for such initiatives does not come from city hall, but from the Region of Peel. According to a regional report outlining community agencies that received money from the COVID-19 Emergency Fund, 29 percent of the 65 applications focused on pressures relating to food security.
“The reality is we are not experiencing a lack of food,” Brown said. While he does acknowledge there is a rotating list of items that are running low, there is still enough food to go around. In his opinion, there needs to be more information available on how food can be accessed, an issue his team is trying to address.
At the municipal level, the City of Brampton has also taken steps to encourage households to help support food security. The Backyard Garden Program was launched in mid-April and encourages residents to grow produce in their backyards for themselves and to donate to food banks and other organizations within the community.
In response to food insecurity across the province, Feed Ontario recently started a program to distribute boxes of items to food banks across the province: 116,000 emergency food boxes have been delivered so far and the goal is to distribute 450,000 over the coming weeks, as the ripple effect of the pandemic continues, Amanda Colella-King, Director of Network & Government Relations for Feed Ontario, told The Pointer.
Each one contains a week’s worth of food and they’re meant to assist food banks who are facing ongoing challenges.
Compounding the problem is a lack of volunteers, because of ongoing restrictions and the fear of viral spread, and a drop in donations from many sources, as many individual donors either don’t have access to as many groceries as usual or are facing their own economic pressures.
“COVID-19 created a surge in demand for our network’s services and grows each day that this crisis continues. Ongoing community support is critical in responding to the extraordinary situation in a sustainable way,” Colella-King said.
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