‘A constant upward battle’; Food Banks Mississauga CEO calls on government to undertake critical reform as demand surges
(Joel Muniz/Unsplash) 

‘A constant upward battle’; Food Banks Mississauga CEO calls on government to undertake critical reform as demand surges

“It's huge, it's terrifying and it's scary and there's no end in sight.” 

These are the disturbing words of Food Banks Mississauga CEO Meghan Nicholls as Feed Ontario reveals in its 2023 annual Hunger Report there are now 800,000 people in Ontario relying on food banks — a number equivalent to nearly the entire population of Mississauga.

What was established as a temporary solution in 1981 has become the backbone for those living below the poverty line. Food banks, meant to be a band-aid solution in times of emergencies, are now part of a system that perpetuates a lack of government and corporate accountability with no plan to address the root causes of food insecurity or reduce overall food bank reliance long-term. This lack of foresight from upper levels of government has pushed food banks to the breaking point as they try to keep up an unprecedented demand for their services. 

Food Banks Mississauga (formerly The Mississauga Food Bank) — was founded in 1986 in the Region of Peel after a study by Peel Social Services revealed an urgent need for food banks in the region to support residents. 

Today, an estimated 70,000 Peel residents now use a food bank.

“Food banks were built as an emergency support, not a long-term way to ensure that Canadian citizens, that Ontario residents, that Peel residents have access to food,” Nicholls told regional councillors in November. “We were supposed to be for emergencies.”

But now, these organizations have become a permanent safety net as more residents descend further into poverty as the cost of living rises and incomes fail to keep pace.

The organization is currently projecting food bank usage in Mississauga will reach a shocking eight percent of the city’s population by May, up from five percent reported in September. That number translates to 58,000 people using the food bank, up from 36,000 during the same period last year — a 60 percent increase. What the organization is going to be determining in the first few months of 2024, Nicholls explained, is how many people it has the capacity to serve.  

Food Banks Mississauga is currently grappling with a situation it never thought it would have to face. The organization knows that without tangible government intervention, it will have to resort to turning people away or decreasing the amount of food they’re able to give out. 

This tipping point is getting closer as demand continues to outpace capacity.  

“These are the conversations food bankers are having across Canada that we've never had before. But there simply is going to be a limit to how big we can grow. It may mean that everybody gets less,” Nicholls said. 


As food banks battle with the rising demand for services, Food Banks Mississauga fears it may need to start turning people away.

(Food Banks Mississauga) 


Multiple reports have demonstrated that the lack of government action has exacerbated the problems food banks are tasked with mitigating. 

Food Banks Canada’s Hunger Count 2023 report revealed there were an unprecedented 1.9 million visits to food banks in March alone in 2023, an increase of 32 percent compared to the previous year, and over 78.5 percent compared to March 2019. It was the highest year-over-year increase in usage reported in the organization’s history. The annual report noted there were 681,292 visits a month in Ontario in 2023, a 40.1 percent increase in visits from 2022 and a 100.6 percent increase since 2019. 

The report observed “shocking growth” in food bank use, reaching “unthinkable levels” since the end of pandemic-related benefits and government aid. The conclusion of pandemic-related benefits, coupled with the high inflation, “it was like gasoline being thrown on a fire,” the report stated.

Food Banks Mississauga reported that between June and December, it served an alarming 37,859 food bank users, almost a 40 percent increase from the same time the year prior. That number marks a 93 percent increase in the number of people using its services to alleviate food insecurity compared to before the pandemic when the organization reported 19,525 clients coming through its doors. More than half of these were first-time users. 

While the organization used to have “busy” seasons, Nicholls says that’s no longer the case and every month redefines its version of “busy.” 

“It's just a constant upward battle.”

Nicholls stressed the scale and scope of the work requires more advanced planning and long-term strategic investments.  

In December alone, the organization saw 16,071 food bank users — a 25 percent increase from the previous year. 

These record-breaking numbers only scratch the surface of the pressures brought on by the urgent need for food that Food Banks Mississauga continues to witness daily across the city. 

Before the pandemic, the organization was providing roughly two million meals a year. Nearly four years later, it is on track for 10 million meals in 2024.  

“The need is growing at an astronomical rate across the province and food banks simply cannot keep up with this level of demand the rising costs and no support,” Nicholls warned. 

Taking into consideration the shortfalls in fundraising, the stark increases in food bank use, and the lack of funding for food banks and social support programs, the current situation is only going to become more dire if the provincial or federal governments fail to step in. 


Food Banks Mississauga CEO Meghan Nicholls fears as the demand continues to rise, the organization is letting down the community.

(Alexis Wright/The Pointer) 


For Food Banks Mississauga, while the funds and food collected during fundraising initiatives like the organization’s Holiday Drive help to meet the immediate need, it's not enough to accommodate demand all year long.

“This is the first time in our community we've started to feel like maybe we're letting down our community in this way in our history. Based on the trends we're seeing in food bank use and fundraising, this could only be the beginning,” Nicholls stressed. 

Just over three years ago, the organization required roughly $3 million in revenue (from charitable donations) annually to provide to the community. That number has since climbed to over $8 million a year. 

“Growing your revenue by 167 percent over four years during a global pandemic is a tough ask for any company, let alone a charity,” she noted. 

As a community-run organization, the food bank is not consistently funded by government support. Food banks rely heavily, and almost solely, on the generosity of the community through charitable donations with food drives and public donations accounting for 17 percent of the food sources for the organization. An additional 17 percent comes from Food Banks Canada and Feed Ontario.  As the cost of living rises, so does food bank use, but expendable income that people use to make donations is down, Nicholls explained to regional councillors in November. 

Community fundraising has not kept pace with the growing demand.

While the 2023 Food Banks Mississauga’s holiday drive raised $2,418,493 — exceeding its goal by 21 percent — Nicholls cautions those funds will only last the first few months of the year, and then it's back to seeking out more donations. The organization also achieved the goal set out in its 2022 holiday drive, raising $1,962,088 — 15 percent above its $1.7 million goal. Although Nicholls recognizes and commends the community for donating their disposable income to help make sure their neighbors have food to eat, community donations aren’t enough to meet the depth of need in Mississauga anymore.  

“The reality is it's just not going to end the problem. It's not going to stop the tide of people coming to food banks,” she explained. 

“I know it seems like $2.4 million is a lot of money. But it only lasts us for a few months. And makes up for the month earlier this year where it cost us more to run the food bank than we raised in those months,” she added. “It's always been that way that only covers us for the first few months. But it's just the amount that is required to cover those months is getting bigger and bigger.”

But as the state of food insecurity continues to worsen in Mississauga, municipalities are stepping up, something Nicholls says is unprecedented and underscores how acute the situation has become. 


The Region of Peel recently approved an additional $2 million to the food security funding stream for Food Banks Mississuaga as part of its 2024 budget.

(Alexis Wright/The Pointer) 


In November, during the Region of Peel’s budget deliberations, Food Banks Mississauga requested the Region double the Community Investment Fund portion that goes to food security. The motion requested the 2024 operating budget for community investment be amended to provide an additional $2 million to the food security funding stream for food banks and that the Region declare food insecurity a crisis and work with other orders of government to address income and affordability challenges that are driving the demand for food banks. The motion was approved unanimously by regional councillors.  

Simultaneously, council also approved an increase of $3 million to the Community Investment Program to be included in the 2024 budget to address increased demand and inflation in “the non-profit sector [and] continuing demand in food security,” which included a $500,000 investment to address food security.

But collectively, food banks across the province and country don’t want long-term funding for themselves, Nicholls has repeatedly stressed. Where the solution to end this crisis lies is in increasing funding to social assistance programs to increase monthly incomes so people aren’t legislated to live in poverty. As food banks work to meet the demands of food insecurity, the Food Banks Mississauga CEO says upper levels of government need to start making policy changes to bring people above the poverty line.  

“The things that we want aren't for us,” she explained. “We don't want to institutionalize. We don't want to add to the coffers of food banks. We want people who are living in poverty to live with dignity and be able to afford the things they need to afford.”

Nicholls previously told The Pointer the absence of policy change has “mandated...people to live in poverty,” by not increasing social assistance programs — the Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program — and creating more affordable housing over the years. Both Food Banks Canada and Food Banks Mississauga’s annual reports have noted the most common income source for food bank clients is through provincial social assistance programs, which represent 42.4 percent of users. Previous reporting from The Pointer has shown these rates have not kept up with the rising costs of living. 

Food Banks Mississauga’s most recent impact report noted 1 out of every 4 of its clients rely on these social assistance programs as a main source of income. The Pointer has previously reported the most that a single person on ODSP can receive is $1,308/month (an increase of $81 per month from 2022) — a number far too low to match what it actually costs to live in many parts of Ontario. While increases to ODSP rates have been made over the last two years, OW benefit rates have remained stagnant for the last half decade, with recipients continuing to receive only $733 per month, the same amount they received in 2018. 


As food banks across Canada sound the alarm for more government support for social assistance programs, their calls continue to go unanswered.

(Food Banks Mississauga) 


The last two Hunger Count reports from Food Banks Canada should have been alarm bells for upper levels of government, but they instead went ignored, leaving food banks to fill the gaps created by inadequate support programs and rising costs of living that force people into poverty.  

“We're not expecting or even really asking the provincial government to fund food banks,” Nicholls explained. “We're asking them to fund the people using food banks, but they don't need our services. There's currently no indication that the provincial or federal government have any plans to implement any new policy that's going to lift folks out of poverty.”

Currently food banks receive no support from upper levels of government, Nicholls confirmed. The last slice of funding came in 2020 when the provincial government gave $8 million to Feed Ontario at the outset of the pandemic — a financial “gift” the PC government continues to tout as their investment in food security. But resources were already being stretched so thin that the funding was spent nearly two weeks after it was received.  

“Really the bottom line here is there is more need and fewer resources and with no intervention, there will be a gap in vital services that nonprofits are able to deliver,” she explained. “We will see an end to food insecurity only when we see adequate and appropriate systems of government supports. But the truth is we don't have those supports in place, they don't exist.”

Not exclusive to residents facing the increased cost of living, another challenge for Food Banks Mississauga is the increase in food costs. The organization notes some agency members have reported having to cut back on their provision of fresh protein — one of the food bank’s most important items to distribute to the community as the price of this category has increased 16 percent in the last two years and continues to rise.

“Certainly the sources of our food has really shifted over the last two years,” Nicholls explained. “We rely far less on the contributions bags of food from kind folks who pick up some extras at the grocery store, and much, much more of our work is food rescue… where you're trying to save stuff that would go in the garbage.”

“Being able to budget for fresh, wholesome sources of protein that food bank users typically receive from the food bank will be extremely challenging if not impossible for food bank clients,” Nicholls explained to Mississauga council in November during the City’s budget deliberations. 

Nicholls says the organization now sources food from other provinces. Resources are shipped to Mississauga where the organization works with partners to get food packaged and when the organization finds certain foods are in surplus, it sends them to other parts of the country that are in need. 

“So there's all kinds of national creative programs that are trying to take advantage of where food is grown and manufactured in Canada, to share with the communities where it's not,” Nicholls explained. “We’re just having to get more and more creative, and kind of go further and further up the supply chain to find those sources of product.”


Food Banks Mississauga has turned to sourcing food from across the province to keep up with the community’s needs.

(Alexis Wright/The Pointer) 


Nicholls noted while the collaboration aspect and building these efficiencies is positive, “It's just so infuriating that those innovations are coming out of trying to meet the desperate needs of people in our community.”

“We're dealing with millions of dollars of food, we're dealing with shipping container loads,” Nicholls explained. “We're not talking about a few grocery bags here and there. It's a significant operational undertaking and capital intensive with a big warehouse and fridges and freezers.”

As governments let the responsibility fall on food banks to support the growing number of people living in precarious situations, Nicholls says “food banks in this particular case have been a victim of our own compassion and success.”  

“I think, because we just keep stepping up and raising more money and finding more food and serving more people and finding bigger spaces, it kind of gives the community and sometimes our governments the sense that this problem is sort of ‘taken care of,’” she explained.  

“[But] how do we make the challenge real for policymakers without causing any harm to the people we serve? How do we make the situation real to them without hurting people in our community? And that's the question we're asking ourselves now.”

Food banks cannot solve the structural issues that have led to this breaking point, Nicholls says, and as the organization works tirelessly to provide food for those going hungry across the city, she stresses policy change and reform from upper levels of government is the only way to get at the root causes. 

“The work we do day in day out is still just providing emergency relief,” Nicholls explained. “It doesn't solve the problem. It's just providing them food in that moment, and so we've just been band-aiding on band-aids for 40 years and here we are.”



Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @mcpaigepeacock

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