With volume up 400% in 8 years, Mississauga Food Bank in desperate need of new home to feed 30K clients
Across Mississauga more people are going hungry, even with the Herculean efforts of the Mississauga Food Bank.
Each month the organization sees the previous number of people using its resources increase, and over the pandemic the jump was heartbreaking. From 2019 to 2022 there was a 54 percent increase in the number of people served by the organization. Just prior to the pandemic the Mississauga Food Bank had 19,525 clients, in early 2022 it had 30,038.
Since 2014, the volume of food distributed by the organization has gone up 400 percent. Its current location can no longer meet the soaring demand. And projections show that the current number of annual clients, 30,000, will double in just five years.
The Mississauga Food Bank needs a new home with much more space, as the need to meet demand outpaces the amount of storage in the main warehouse.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
With more residents struggling to pay bills, many started eating less. Hyper-inflation is now driving up costs even higher for basic necessities, as some businesses sputter from the lingering effects of the global public health crisis—the situation for Mississauga’s primary supplier of food for the needy has never been more challenging.
“At the end of the day, there's only one reason: cost of living is more than income,” Meghan Nicholls, CEO of the food bank, told The Pointer. “It's going up at a faster rate than people can afford, and the only thing they can do is turn to a charity.”
Overwhelmingly, clients of the food bank are renters, making housing policies and affordable housing waitlists in Peel a direct factor in the lives of those whose budgets are swallowed by the cost of shelter. A One-bedroom unit in Mississauga is about $1,758 and continues to increase. The desperate need for affordable housing in the municipality can also be seen in Peel’s centralized housing waitlist which has ballooned to more than 28,000 households.
Increasing housing prices means more families are rationing grocery trips while attempting to keep a roof over their heads in an increasingly competitive market. Many Food Bank clients are unemployed, using the Ontario Works fund or the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). The application process is not only selective but barely covers necessities for people who struggle to work or may not be able to find a job.
“Those programs legislate how much money those people can have, earn and have in assets, it's legislating poverty to give someone $733 a month on Ontario Works, or $1,169 on ODSP is legislating poverty, there's no other option for those people except to go to the food bank,” Nicholls said.
Without increasing funds towards these life-line programs many continue to lean on food banks. The pandemic saw widespread job losses across many sectors, but those who were the sole contributor to the household financially felt the impact the most. According to Statistics Canada, one in seven people lost their jobs due to the pandemic.
Between June 2020 and May 2021 there was a 14 percent increase in unique food bank visits, most of which was driven by residents who have never relied on the service. The organization says 6,814 people during that period were first-time users. Many place blame on the public health crisis and widespread job losses that occurred early on, but Nicholls says people were relying on the food bank even before.
“We've progressively seen an increase every single year,” she said. “We saw a big jump back in the 2008-2009 period following the financial crisis.”
Food banks were never intended to solve hunger problems, they were introduced as emergency measures to ensure people in precarious situations had access to the most basic life-sustaining need—food.
The Mississauga Food Bank, like all similar organizations across Canada, operates solely on donations and funding from large corporations. Nicholls says the first government grant ever given to the organization happened at the beginning of the pandemic when the federal government handed money to critical nonprofits and other social services groups suffering as a result of lockdown orders.
Dry goods are welcomed at the Food Bank, but over the years an increased demand for fresh foods has created a unique space problem.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
“We would not have survived COVID if it weren't for the millions that the federal government poured in,” Nicholls said.
Funding from the provincial government has never materialized unlike many other social services in the housing, healthcare and mental health spaces that are supported through Queen’s Park.
The Annual Impact Report from 2021 shows the Food Bank’s operating expenses are just under $14 million, donations covering 93 percent of that. A small percentage of its funding comes from a grant program through the Region of Peel. Nicholls says the organization is one of few in Canada that has some municipal support.
The largest expenses for the organization are sourcing, managing and distributing food.
Linda Bruce, a food procurement specialist, creates deals with companies for buying food in bulk and managing the long list of needs for the community. Some of the most needed items right now are cooking oil, protein, like meat and canned fish, and baby formula.
Mississauga residents have many diverse backgrounds with specific dietary preferences or restrictions. The Food Bank tries to bring in items for all residents. This often means staying up to date on pricing and negotiating deals with companies providing culturally appropriate items.
About 21 percent of food is purchased from stakeholders, but the majority comes from Food Banks Canada and Feed Ontario, two organizations representing the sector and acting as gatekeepers in food procurement and policy making around the distribution of groceries in the sector.
Food drives and public donations are 19 percent of the food sources for the organization, an integral part of how it keeps operations running. For the Mississauga Food Bank, which has a stellar reputation in the city, the public continues to meet its needs when donations are requested. In 2021 the community donated $16.8 million during the height of the pandemic.
With the public rallying behind the organization, Nicholls says its biggest concern, now, is the lack of space to operate in as demand continues to surge.
The warehouse located on Universal Drive off Dundas Street is cramped. It looks like a Costco warehouse with pallets of food stacked to the rafters and busy volunteers sorting and packaging food.
Since 2014 the Food Bank has operated out of the 21,000 square foot facility and during the early years it was distributing 1.3 million pounds of food each year. Now, in the same space, 5.2 million pounds of food is passing through annually.
The skyrocketing demand has led the food bank to increase operations but the lack of industrial space in Mississauga has forced staff to become creative.
It can house 400 skids of food at its maximum, but during the peak season (around Thanksgiving and Christmas) there were 728 pallets of food that needed to be stored. Knowing the constraints of the one warehouse, the organization has funded three additional warehouse spaces.
“It looks like it's functioning here but that's because a lot of what we need is kept off site, and we have to go back and forth to be able to have the space,” Joanna Burke, director of communications, said in an interview.
Meghan Nicholls has worked at the Mississauga Food Bank for 13 years. In that time she’s seen the organization experience rapid growth in usage.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
The additional buildings are costing the organization $110,000 each per year which is the equivalent to 220,000 meals for hungry people (every one dollar can produce two meals).
The price to keep the warehouses leased is only one side of the equation, the other is the time and extra coordination efforts for staff and volunteers.
One of the warehouses is down Dundas Street, about a five-to-seven-minute drive. The others are about 20 minutes away, off Highway 401 near Dixie Road.
According to Burke, relying on third-party operators isn’t ideal because to access the food the organization is depending on an external company's schedule. The lag in communication has a chain reaction in distributing food to the more than 55 agencies across Mississauga dependent on the Food Bank.
The facility on Universal Drive is the heart of the operation, where staff come to pack food and organize deliveries to the community pantries and smaller food banks. Magued Magharious, known as Magic, tells The Pointer his job as warehouse supervisor becomes more complicated when food is constantly moving between the facilities.
“It's ongoing, all day long to have to move things around,” Magic told The Pointer. Sometimes you don’t have space in the freezer so you have to [put it in the fridge] which will decrease the time that we have to ship it out.”
Magic works closely with Elliott Rate, the warehouse operator, who is constantly on his toes. At times companies can unexpectedly donate large quantities of food, this can often be seen in the food bank’s ReclaimFRESH program which takes fresh foods from grocery stores due to extra stock. Linda Bruce, who often spearheads these programs, swings by her local bakery on her way to the office and picks up any day-old goods.
Magued Magharious, known as Magic, has worked at the Mississauga Food Bank for two years. In the early days of the pandemic he said storing food was very stressful with the lack of space.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
“So COBS has a policy where they don't sell day-old bread and they bake a ton,” she said. “Their shelves are always full and then the next day they have charities, so we're the Monday partner.”
Knowing the food can be put to good use, the organization never wants to turn away donations. It’s a scenario being seen more often due to the lack of space.
“If we get an offer of something great like yogurt or cheese, we'd have to sometimes have a look and say, ‘can we take it? Is there something less valuable we can take out of the fridge’,” Nicholls said. “We want to turn it really quickly and get it out, but it still does need to go somewhere for a minute.”
Staff are under constant pressure to succeed in what sometimes seem like a giant video game (with much, much more at stake), moving product around, making sure items are stored in appropriate places. Fridge and freezer space is particularly precious with pallets constantly being removed and added on a daily basis.
The additional warehouses off-site do not have fridge/freezer capacity, instead the Food Bank rents a truck with cold storage when the internal space is full. Not only is there a fee to rent the industrial truck but the cost of gas to fuel it also increases the price, especially when fuel continues to hover around $2 a litre.
Nicholls told City of Mississauga councillors at a July 6 council meeting the organization is treating the lack of space as an emergency.
“The situation is quite urgent,” she said. “The additional 30,000 people we’re talking about is in the next five years… I have not felt as much like I’m working in an emergency in my 13 years that I have been with the Food Bank [as I do right now].”
Current projections from the organization forecast it will be providing food to 60,000 people by 2027, double the current number of clients in half a decade. Unfortunately, the organization believes without immediate government action and decisive policies that would end systemic poverty it will continue to operate beyond its capacity in the future.
Nicholls told The Pointer the client base includes a wide range of the working poor, families previously in good financial situations and more individuals on the verge of slipping through the cracks, trying desperately to hang onto their housing, and going hungry to do so.
“They are devastated that they're here, and they talk about wanting to get to the point that they can give back,” she said. “I just think we've got to do better for folks.”
The Food Bank says about 14.7 percent of the population in Mississauga lives under the poverty line, a measurement that has started including more traditional “middle class” earners. About 85 percent of the clients are living in poverty.
According to 2016 Census data about 57 percent of Mississauga residents were visible minorities, but they make up 80 percent of the Food Bank’s clients. Stories of new immigrants struggling to find employment and secure housing in the pricey city are common. Nicholls says divorce also plays a significant role. Other realities, such as loss of employment, the development of addictions including gambling habits, abuse and a range of other personal traumas contribute to dependency on external social services supports.
Linda Bruce (left) backs her personal vehicle full of bread up to the shipping area as Elliott Rate (right) opens the door.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
Nicholls spoke with a mother of two kids who had split up with her husband. Since he was the higher income earner when he left she was on her own. The elder son wanted to help but they couldn’t afford to pay for him to commute to and from work, the younger child had special needs preventing the mother from getting a second job.
“I thought, ‘here's a middle class family, two incomes and because of a marriage breakdown, the financial devastation that came with that, they ended up using the food bank’,” Nicholls said. “Those are the kinds of stories where these are people falling through the cracks, these are people you wouldn't imagine.”
Food banks are there for community members in their darkest moments.
Now, the organization needs support.
It needs local governments and politicians to figure out solutions.
In a perfect world the organization could find a plot of industrial zoned land at a relatively low cost and build its own dream facility. This would ensure proper space for fridge/freezer items and convenient access by public transit and highways.
In the meantime, the Mississauga Food Bank continues to look for temporary solutions, to a problem growing more permanent by the day.
Email: [email protected]
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