'Most challenging, difficult year': Canadian food banks get creative to meet demand amid pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced Canadian food banks to get creative in their approach to giving out food and collecting donations this year.

Multiple drive-thru collections have been set up across the country for Thanksgiving weekend.

The Regina Food Bank staged its first drive-thru on Saturday, where normally collection would be done door-to-door in the city. The food bank’s CEO says they’re seeing a 50 per cent increase in the number of new clients due to the pandemic.

In Toronto, Mayor John Tory rolled up his sleeves to help out at a drive-thru food bank in Etobicoke, which currently serves around 25,000 families every week.

Before the pandemic, more than 840,000 Canadians sought help from a food bank every month according to Food Banks Canada. Over the last eight months, operators have reported sharp increases in usage.

“The response from the community has been outstanding and deeply appreciated given the incredible need,” CEO of Toronto’s Daily Bread food bank Neil Hetherington told CTV News. He said in an interview on Sunday that the city has seen a 200 per cent increase in the number of new food bank users.

“It’s challenging and it’s heartwarming at the same time to know that we’ve got a community that cares not only about the immediate needs of individuals experiencing food insecurity, but also looking at the tough systemic challenges that cause that,” he added.

The federal government doubled the amount of pandemic aid for Canada's food banks on Friday, adding another $100 million to the Emergency Food Security Fund so related agencies and Indigenous organizations can keep helping struggling Canadians put food on the table during COVID-19.

Hetherington says the food bank has been able to meet the increased demand, but it hasn’t been easy.

“This has been the most challenging, difficult year for the food bank… We’ve had to make massive changes on a regular basis. We’ve had to institute new programs on the fly,” he said. “Our goal was that we make every single delivery on-time, as promised, safely. And we’ve been able to do that, it just hasn’t been easy.”

Food bank operators are hopeful that government interventions and positive job reports will lead to a decline in the number of food bank users. But with growing concerns about the second wave of the pandemic, Hetherington fears that those experiencing poverty may become even more vulnerable as public health restrictions continue.

However, he said the food bank “will do everything it can” to help.

“Often it’s said that food insecurity is not a food issue but an income issue. So as we look towards the incomes that individuals have across the country and the challenges of expenses in big cities in big cities in particular like Toronto, that income statement doesn’t add up,” he said.

Individuals who have the means to donate food are asked to make donations at any fire hall or food bank across the country.

Hetherington is calling on the public to advocate for “positive social policy” that would include affordable housing and the implementation of a national anti-poverty strategy so Canadians can emerge from the pandemic “much better.”

“If they can, our suggestion is that they take on that advocacy role, they pick up a pen and they write a letter to or send an email and advocate for the change that we need to see,” Hetherington said.

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