Manitoulin Food Bank use up before pandemic and continues to grow

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MINDEMOYA – The executive director of Manitoulin Family Resources (MFR) can vouch for the fact that there had already been a increase in demand for food bank services prior to the COVID-19 pandemic taking hold, and that this need has only increased since. 

Marnie Hall told the Recorder on Monday, “it is the same with our food bank as there has been throughout the province. There had already been an increase in demand before the pandemic. The key word this year has been pivot, which we and other food banks in the province have had to do many times over the past year. Usage at the food bank had already increased before the pandemic, with new people and families coming forward needing the services.”

“So, there were a lot of challenges already, then the pandemic hit,” said Ms. Hall. “And in response, some people didn’t go out and even stopped visiting the food bank due to COVID. We adopted by expanding our services, workers bringing a lot of the food to people in communities themselves and services coming here. We also had to expand our physical space to fill the need for food.”
She pointed out federal funding was also provided to build capacity for new equipment at the food bank. 

Feed Ontario released its Hunger Report 2020 on food bank use on Monday. It indicates that food bank use across Ontario shows there was a surge in demand for those services when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of the province, but that the number of people accessing food banks had already gone up over the previous year.

Feed Ontario included a special analysis of the impact of the pandemic alongside its usual report on annual food bank use, which gathers from 130 member food banks and more than 1,000 affiliate agencies.

The report took in data from April 2019 to this April, and the pandemic analysis covers data from members and affiliates between March 17 (when the province declared a health emergency) and September. The report outlines that food banks reported a significant increase in the number of first-time users in the first four months of the pandemic. As well, 20 percent of food banks surveyed reported a “continued surge” in the number of people accessing their services on an ongoing basis—an increase of five to 54 percent—even beyond that period.

The report notes that between April 1, 2019 and March 31, 2020, Ontario’s food banks were accessed by 537,575 individuals that visited more than 3.2 million times throughout the year. This is a 5.3 percent increase in the number of new individuals over the previous year, and a 7.8 percent increase in the last two years. 

With the onset of COVID-19 and the declaration of a stage of emergency in Ontario on March 17, 2020, food banks saw an almost immediate surge in demand as hundreds of thousands of people in the province faced extensive job losses and closures.

Ms. Hall noted that, “we (MFR food bank) are featured in the hunger report this year. I’m pleased that they included us; it has been quite an experience for all food banks.”
The Feed Ontario MFR food bank feature notes it, “provides programming in the areas of violence against women prevention, children’s services, as well as a food bank and thrift store. Our food bank serves the communities of Manitoulin Island and normally supports 300-330 individuals per month. All of this programming is done with the most dedicated group of volunteers, under the part-time supervision provided by the food security program co-ordinator, Linda Gilchrist.”

On March 11, 2020, the thrift store did not open due to concern for community safety in response to the pandemic. “The food bank continued to operate on a skeleton crew of three, and the store remained closed.”

“While the initial days of the pandemic were very quiet for food bank requests, it caused concern that we were not even receiving requests from some of our regular visitors. As most agencies had staff working remotely, Linda began to try to reach out to agencies to remind them that we were here, we were open and available to help those in need. As COVID numbers increased in the province, several of our local Indigenous communities went into lockdown for the protection of their members. We continued to reach out to community leaders and workers and encouraged them to let us know if we could be of assistance.”

“Referrals began to increase, sometimes high, sometimes low, but then came a day where a worker called with 700 names of those in need,” MFR noted. “It was a turning point. Instead of sending individual baskets, we prepared pallets for pick up, which were delivered and distributed to households. Our building which housed the food bank and thrift store was repurposed to be one large food bank, as the space was needed for the amounts of food that we were processing, and to allow for physical distancing of our three individuals meeting the needs of many.”

“For three consecutive months, our food bank provided food to more than 1,000 individuals, with the highest month being over 1,500,” MFR stated in the report. “As restrictions have eased in the province, we have seen a drop from those high numbers. Some have speculated that individuals have had financial stability due in large part to CERB (Canada Emergency Response Benefit), but as CERB evolves and COVID numbers have again started to rise at a faster rate than the earlier wave, we are attempting to prepare for what will come.”

Prepackaged food boxes through Feed Ontario were an incredible boon during the local food bank’s high numbers, and the federal grant dollars has allowed us to expand our capacity with commercial grade freezers and coolers in order to accept the food donation.”

The MFR thrift store has remained closed. However, “we’ve since been very fortunate to receive funding through the federal Emergency Community Support Fund to hire a temporary staff person for the remainder of this fiscal year. Their job will be to deliver thrift store items and food to those out in community in need.” 

Ms. Hall pointed out MFR has made a couple of changes to its annual Christmas Food Basket program. The campaign will run from December 7 to 18 and space in the Mindemoya Missionary Church and Mindemoya Curling Club will be used. 

“By using both it will allow us to only have a maximum of 10 people in both places collecting and putting the baskets together. Contacts will be made with organizations to pick up the baskets for distribution in their communities. 

“We were prepared to have to provide 1,300 Christmas food baskets but at this point we have 900 referrals. If we have extra food after the Christmas campaign, it will mean we have a little bit more food available in January,” added Ms. Hall. 

Ms. Hall added that once again, for the Christmas food baskets and throughout the year, the Manitoulin community has shown its tremendous support for MFR and the food bank.