On Easter Monday, the Ottawa Mission will serve dinners, including thousands of pounds of turkey, at its shelter in the ByWard Market, but this year the meal marks a grim anniversary.
In April 2020, the Mission considered cancelling the event because of the recently declared COVID-19 pandemic, but ultimately decided to proceed with a scaled-down version and providing takeout meals to clients.
Since then, however, and due to in part to catastrophic aftershocks caused by the spread of the virus, the mission now has more mouths to feed. Last year, the mission began a food truck program to deliver free meals directly to communities that need them. This year, as inflation skyrockets and COVID-19 continues to spread, even more Ottawans are going hungry and the shelter estimates it will deliver close to one million meals.
“Prices have certainly had an impact and certainly COVID-19,” said Peter Tilley, the mission’s executive director. “We’re hearing from many people who we are delivering meals to in those communities: ’I never thought I’d be at this point of needing assistance. This is the first time ever I’ve had to reach out to the food bank or to a community meal program like this for support.’”
Food insecurity has risen in Ottawa and community meal programs and food banks are seeing longer queues of people who can’t afford groceries and other necessities.
“We’ve always known that food insecurity is just a reflection of lack of income and poverty,” said Rachael Wilson, the CEO of the Ottawa Food Bank (OFB). “Whether we’re in a pandemic, whether there’s inflation, it’s truly just about people not having enough money to buy the food that is most appropriate for their families.”
Wilson noted 60 per cent of people who access food banks are on some kind of social assistance, which hasn’t kept pace with the inflation that has skyrocketed in recent months.
With inflation, the lingering effect of the pandemic and living costs soaring, people have had to make choices.
“When you put all those pieces together it’s very challenging for people to pay all of their bills,” Wilson said. “The easiest thing is to cut back on food. You can’t cut back on rent, you can’t cut back on your heating bills but you can always go without food so unfortunately that’s the first thing that people go without.”
OFB serves as a central hub that delivers to 112 agencies that provide emergency food support across the city, so their delivery and purchase numbers tend to reflect the broader picture of how many people are accessing food support in Ottawa.
In September, OFB began noticing an increase in the number of people requiring the assistance of food banks, which has risen about 17 per cent compared to past years. It is also costing more for OFB to buy food. Inflation spiked the cost of food bank’s expenses by 15 per cent and donations, of food and money, fell by about the same amount.
Even as agencies that offer emergency food services and other food programs across the city see an increase in demand, painting a bleak picture of the rise in demand for food, it’s likely that the actual degree of the problem is even bleaker.
Data from the Food Insecure Policy Research (PROOF), an interdisciplinary research team investigating household food insecurity in Canada, has indicated that fewer than one quarter of Canadians who are food insecure actually access food banks.
Behind this challenge is the reality that food banks, as critical as they are, don’t provide a permanent solution to food insecurity.
“The Ottawa Food Bank, we’ve been around for 38 years, we’ve put a lot of food out into the community; it doesn’t change anything,” Wilson said, though noted the pandemic has changed the way that some people are approaching the problem. “We have to do things differently and there’s finally the interest and the momentum from the rest of the community to do that.”
One example, the Parkdale Food Centre, has been trying to find new ways of getting food to where it’s needed in the community and of providing a holistic suite of services to those who access food support.
“They need community and they need dignity and they need wraparound support,” said Meredith Kerr, the centre’s director of communications and community development. “We try to address that.”
The centre operates youth programs, cooking workshops and its staff take the opportunity to connect with people when they come for food, which is especially important now as people have become more isolated due to the pandemic, Kerr said.
On Fridays, the centre runs Fresh Eats, a free-of-charge produce market that operates out of a local community centre. So far, Fresh Eats has attracted a greater number of people who are accessing food support for the first time, in part, Kerr said, due to the lack of stigma of going into a community centre versus a food bank.
Access to nutritious food can be a game-changer for those who haven’t had it.
The Ottawa Community Food Partnership, as one of its programs, draws on local businesses to provide meals to 30 social service agencies, where they are dealt out, in some cases, at supervised injection sites, where the meals have had extraordinary effects, according to Erica Braunovan, the manager of the OCFP.
Clients at those supervised injection sites have been healing faster, gaining healthy weight and are less likely to become engaged in conflicts.
But the true value of the meals is often greater than the nutrition they provide. Braunovan explained how clients at supervised injection sites and other meal recipients express a deep sense of gratitude when provided with food that has been specifically prepared for them.
“That idea that something was not actually discarded, it’s not leftover, it’s not secondary,” said Braunovan. “It’s purposely made, intentionally, to demonstrate care to people in the community.”