Food Banks and COVID-19: Challenges and Innovation in Response to the Pandemic By Eleonora Gagliardi and Sterling Stutz

Food banks are a relatively long-standing part of community landscapes across the country, and fill a critical role of feeding individuals and families who rely on their services. However, this was not always the case. When food banks were first introduced into Canada in 1981, they were meant to be a temporary measure, designed to support families during difficult economic times. Yet with the rise of neoliberal capitalism charity-based solutions such as food banks came to be accepted as an alternative to governmental interventions, and so they have remained in place, with individuals and families increasingly relying on them. Food banks have become necessary social support programs, but are still operating under precarious conditions, mostly funded by grants, run by non-profit organizations, and reliant on community donations.

According to the City of Toronto, 1 in 5 Toronto households are affected by food insecurity and that number has grown in the past several months, largely attributed to a rapid increase in unemployment and economic uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In July 2020, the Daily Bread Food Bank announced there had been a 200% increase in new clients accessing food banks in Toronto in recent months. 

While demand has increased, funding sources for these programs have diminished, as donations have fallen off since the spring. Additionally, the public health protocols required to ensure the safe functioning of services during the pandemic, such as physical distancing and PPE, are costly and restrictive and have made it difficult for many programs to remain functioning. Other organizations were compelled to restructure their programs at the beginning of the pandemic, such as the Good Food Program run by the Ryerson Student’s Union, which was closed March 16-30th, and re-opened with an offering of limited prepared food hampers, instead of their usual food pantry access. Others remain closed indefinitely, including the UTSU Campus Food Bank at the University of Toronto St. George Campus, and it is unclear when they will reopen.

Overall, the City of Toronto estimates that of the food bank programs operating in the city ahead of the pandemic, 40% of those existing programs have closed as a result of COVID-19. For the locations that remain open, various changes have been made to their operating hours and their provisioning of services. This is problematic given the large portion of the population that relied on food banks before the pandemic, and the fact that this number has drastically increased. Innovative community responses popped up in the spring to accommodate this increased demand: Libraries across the City of Toronto were transformed into food distribution centres; The Good Food Box, in partnership with FoodShare Toronto, expanded their services for low-cost access to fresh produce; and the community organization The Afri-Can FoodBasket launched #BlackFoodToronto, facilitating access to fresh produce for members of the African, Caribbean, Black community during the pandemic. 

Each program is integral to providing healthy meals. Smaller organizations may play a unique role in providing community and culturally-specific food programs and services that may not be accessible through larger programs and services. The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed many food organizations into precarious positions through increased costs and limited volunteer options, with smaller, community-based organizations finding it particularly difficult to meet these demands. Ultimately, the closure of such programs will limit individuals’ and families’ access to ethnocultural food services and programming.

Food banks, initially implemented as a temporary measure, have become essential aspects of the food system, providing a needed source of support for individuals and families experiencing food insecurity. Overall, it is evident that food banks are integral to our food system; however, they are inadequate band-aid solutions and ultimately should not be a significant part of a healthy and resilient food system. In order to create such a food system, structures need to be put in place to ensure that universal and equitable access to food is available, without reliance on charity-based approaches that let the government off the hook in their responsibility of supporting the health and well-being of all.

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