First-time food bank usage soars during first four months of COVID-19

About half of food bank visitors said they feared being evicted or missing mortgage payments

A sign of the pandemic times.

Feed Ontario released a report on Monday that shows during the first four months of the pandemic there was a 26 per cent spike in the number of first-time food bank users, as people grappled with job cuts and reduced work hours.

About half said they were worried about being evicted or missing a mortgage payment, and the majority had reached out for financial help from family and friends, or used credit cards and payday loans.

The numbers come close to matching up what they saw at the Barrie Food Bank.

Executive Director Peter Sundborg says there was a significant increase in the number of first-timer users in April, a 20 per cent spike, and that carried through to about May.

“I believe in March, April and even May, we were still in a kind of panic mode. People just did not know what the pandemic meant. Those people who had been forced out of their jobs or were not able to work started using the food bank.”

There was a drop in people using the food bank when government assistance programs like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit kicked in. But with CERB going by the wayside, Sundborg says they are starting to see numbers go up again.

The Barrie Food Bank served over 800 households in October compared to around 700 a year ago. Sundborg expects the number to be around 850 for November and for the trend to continue into 2021.

Feed Ontario listed a lack of affordable housing, insufficient social assistance programs, a growth in precarious employment, such as part-time and casual work, as the top three drivers of food bank usage.

Pre-pandemic, between Apr. 1, 2019 and Mar. 31, 2020, the report said 537,535 people used food banks, a jump of 5.3 per cent over the previous year, and that one third of those visitors were children.

The report found 65 per cent of food bank visitors relied on social assistance as their primary source of income. There was also 44 per cent more employed people accessing food banks over the past four years.

A light at the end of the pandemic tunnel for Sundborg and his staff has been the generosity of the community.

“Our Thanksgiving Food Drive, we had a goal of $150,000 pounds of food and we raised closed to just over $200,000,” says Sundborg. “The community has really stepped up over the last nine months, and in a very unprecedented time, as we’re all aware of.”

The Christmas Holiday Food Drive will be similar to Thanksgiving. No food donations, only financial. What is different is there will be no dollar target. Sundborg says they just want to say thank you.

“We just want to say thank you for caring. Than you for being there for us. Thank you for making a difference in the lives of people who otherwise would have gone hungry.”