Quebec food banks grapple with higher demand and fewer donations

When Kim Reed opened the doors to On Rock Community Services on Friday morning, there was already someone waiting to be registered with the food bank.

Reed, president of On Rock, said it was becoming a regular occurrence, with people signing up for services almost every day. This is a problem with which many food banks in Quebec are struggling.

In the space of about two years, On Rock has grown from 210 families in Pierrefonds to 280 families.

“We are seeing more and more families coming in who never imagined they would be on the doorstep of a food bank,” he said.

“With the cost of everything being what it is, whether it’s for your car, your house, for food…at some point, something has to give and the easiest thing to replace is food.”

But On Rock’s supplies are dwindling. The organization struggles to find non-perishable and basic foodstuffs, such as sugar or flour, to help families meet their needs.

“All we know is our shelves are always full — some of them aren’t that full,” Reed said.

WATCH | Food banks see more poverty in the Montreal area:

Montreal food banks see more demand and fewer donations

Suzanne Scarrow of West Island Missions says demand has skyrocketed in recent months due to the rising cost of living. They also see fewer donations from the community and partner companies.

On Rock isn’t the only food bank experiencing a drop in stock. Suzanne Scarrow, executive director of the West Island Mission, says demand has skyrocketed over the past six months. It was up about seven times from last January, she said.

“We’re seeing real poverty. People are exhausted. They’re exhausted financially, and emotionally as well,” Scarrow told CBC’s Debra Arbec. “It’s a real struggle, it’s a really tough time right now.”

Martin Munger, general manager of Food Banks of Quebec, said the surge in demand is something the province has never seen before – it has more than doubled since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Inflation as the culprit

Food banks attribute the phenomenon to inflation and reduced COVID-related emergency funding.

Not only are customers struggling financially, but people – and businesses – are giving less.

Scarrow said some West Island Mission corporate partners are pulling out. Recently, one of them canceled his donation of 250 backpacks just before he started school.

A shelf with lots of empty space and applesauce.
Many food banks are seeing shelves empty faster than they can fill. (John Ngala/CBC)

“They said ‘this is devastating news,'” Scarrow said. “My reaction was ‘if you think that’s devastating, imagine how it is for us.’ We see it among our customers, but it’s almost like it’s trickling down from the top.”

Cash donations are less important and they don’t go as far as they used to with the rising cost of food, gas and labor.

“We’re absorbing all that loss, it’s a big effect,” Munger said.

Community and corporate donations and government funding are needed to keep food banks afloat, organizers say.

“Are we going to have enough for every family, and once we distribute that, what are we going to do next week?” Reed says he wonders every week.

A demographic change

Food banks were surprised to see a change in their clientele. They say they see a lot more older people and what they call the “working poor”.

People with limited employment income, a fixed pension and those receiving unemployment insurance are among the new clients.

“They budgeted themselves down to the last five bucks and now with inflation they can’t buy their groceries, they can’t put gas in their cars,” Scarrow said.

The West Island Mission even changed its definition of low income, increasing the Canada Revenue Agency standard band by about 7%. Scarrow said the old low-income standard was no longer realistic due to inflation.

“They make the choice to pay their rent or buy their groceries, it’s really difficult.”

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