Two million pounds of food are served annually through the North York Harvest food bank, and there has been a huge increase in those utilizing these services following the pandemic. North York acts as a distribution centre, providing both food and funds to a larger network of community agencies now closed due to Covid-19.
“Most rely on volunteers, have limited or no operating budget, and lack their own dedicated spaces, relying on places like schools, community centres and houses of worship to run their programs. When these buildings were closed, we effectively lost the ability to distribute food to many communities,” said North York executive director Ryan Noble.
One of the largest programs was at the Oriole Community Centre (a collaboration between North York, the Flemingdon Health Centre, and the Working Women Community Centre) complete with a dedicated kitchen and food space, but that space proved too small to observe social distancing and distribute food safely.
In its place, North York has moved to the centre’s spacious hockey rink.
“The room provided by the rink space along with the city staff that is supporting us at the moment are really two key factors that enable us to continue operating safety,” Noble said. “It allows us to move food in quite easily and provides for a safe spacing for community members and staff.”
In addition to space, North York is facing a staff shortage. Many volunteers that used to run food distribution centres are no longer available, requiring financially strapped North York to send staff across town.
“Financial donations are critical to us at the moment. We need to serve a growing need with fewer people and agencies. It also costs us more to provide our service as we deploy staff to activities that used to be done by volunteers and provide them with the equipment and supplies needed to operate safely,” Noble said.
North York has received some funding from community businesses, but funds are spread thin with an uptick in people to serve and staff to support.
The food bank served 4,850 households (9,550 individuals) in April through its distribution network, a 25 per cent growth rate compared to the same time last year. At the food bank’s own centres, that growth is 50 per cent.
People that want to help the food bank but aren’t in the financial position to donate can still bring food items to North York’s main warehouse or through grocery stores and fire halls. Aside from cash and food donations, Noble has asked the public to support long-term changes.
“For those that are unable to donate, I would encourage people to help us advocate for the long-term changes that are needed to build a more resilient food system and ultimately drive food bank usage down,” he said. “Reforms to social assistance, better working conditions, and the need for more affordable housing are desperately needed if we want to ensure that our most vulnerable neighbours are well cared for now and into the future.”