Muskoka Food Banks Prepare For Increased Need Heading Into Winter

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A basket is filled with food items at a Toronto food bank.
Photo courtesy of Black Ram Media

Food banks across Muskoka and the rest of the country have seen an increase in visits throughout the pandemic, and with the holidays approaching, need is rising even more.

There were more than 1.3 million visits to food banks across Canada in March 2021, according to the Hunger Count report from Food Banks Canada, which translates to an increase of about 20 percent compared to 2019. Food banks in Ontario saw a 23.5 per cent increase in visits this year compared to 2019 with urban centres seeing the biggest rise in need. Last year had the highest number of food bank visits ever recorded in Toronto as well as a 61 per cent increase in new clients, according to the annual Who’s Hungry report from Daily Bread Food Bank and North York Harvest. 

“Low and stagnant incomes, rising food costs, and an unrelenting housing market driving market rents up across the country have created a level of need not seen since the aftermath of the 2008 recession,” says the Hunger Count report.

Gearing up for winter

Sam Robinson, president of the Board of Directors for Manna Food Bank in Bracebridge, said their numbers have been all over since the pandemic started. Need has varied depending on the time of year and the government assistance available, but they have seen a steady influx of new clients with 210 new families signing up for services since the beginning of 2020. 

Now with winter approaching, the team at the food bank is gearing up for their busy season. Between seasonal employment opportunities drying up and additional costs like heat kicking in, there’s a lot of pressure on families’ budgets during this time of year, Sam said, and COVID has led to many changes in the way they serve their clients.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve had to revamp how we do our entire operation,” she said. “We don’t have clients entering the food bank. Safety and wellbeing of our volunteers and our clients is utmost, so we’ve now created an opportunity for clients to request their groceries online or by telephone.”

The Muskoka Oldtimers Hockey Club Fall Food Drive in support of Manna happened virtually for the first time ever in 2020.

The food bank’s volunteers are split into morning and afternoon teams to keep the number of people in the building low. The morning team packs groceries based on client requests and the afternoon team meets people outside the facility to distribute the food.

Manna Food Bank is careful to keep proper COVID-19 procedures and protocols in place, particularly because many of their volunteers are retired, but some volunteers have stepped back out of an abundance of caution. With the departure of existing volunteers as well as the onset of the busy season, the food bank is always looking for people to join the team and that’s not the only way to support their efforts.

On top of being run by volunteers alone, Manna Food Bank exists entirely on the generosity of the community for their funding.

“We live in an extremely giving community. Financial donations are always welcome that allows us to purchase items that we need as we need them,” Sam said. “We are allowed to again, with the guidelines from the province and the health unit, accept food donations, and we have donation boxes in a couple of the local grocery stores in town, [Your Independent Grocer] and Food Basics.”

Serving food and then some

Captain Kam Robinson (no relation to Sam Robinson) serves as community ministries officer for Salvation Army South Muskoka Ministries, which operates a food bank in Bracebridge and another in Gravenhurst. Kam said both locations have seen an increase in new clients as well as more frequent visits from their existing clients.

Family Services Associate Naomi Kelly stocking shelves in the hygiene area of the Salvation Army's Gravenhurst food bank. Alongside the need for food, hygiene items like tissues, period products and toiletries also in high demand
Family Services Associate Naomi Kelly stocking shelves in the hygiene area of the Salvation Army’s Gravenhurst food bank. Alongside the need for food, hygiene items like tissues, period products and toiletries also in high demand. Photo courtesy of Kam Robinson

The Bracebridge food bank served 428 households in 2020 compared to 393 families in 2019. The increase in clients and more frequent visits meant that the food bank distributed over 12,000 more pounds of food in 2020 compared to the year before. The Gravenhurst food bank saw a similar rise in need, serving 81 additional households in 2020 and distributing nearly 20,000 pounds of food more than the previous year.

Kam anticipates seeing an even bigger increase in 2021 once the yearly totals are calculated. Prior to the pandemic, the team at the Salvation Army was able to engage with clients on a more personal level and help refer them to other agencies when necessary, so Kam said she’s worried about the more complex needs of their clients since their current interactions are so brief.

“We are connected with the community agencies and we like to refer people to programs that could help them on other levels, not just food, and so there’s a concern there because of the restrictions,” Kam said. “People are just sort of engaging at the door for their food and not really getting into the needs that they have, the underlying reasons why they’re actually seeing us, that maybe could be addressed through other programs.”

Despite the current challenges, Kam wants to assure the community that they haven’t closed down for even a day due to COVID and they still want to be that big source of support for people. The next opportunity for locals to receive their support is the Salvation Army’s Christmas hamper program

Help for the holidays

The program offers assistance with Christmas gifts, toys and food, and lots of local families have already signed up. Salvation Army staff and volunteers often come in to find voicemails of people looking to register and clients are signing on earlier this year.

“In previous years without the pandemic, people have waited a little bit longer to ask for that Christmas assistance, but they’re really eager to make it known that they need that this year,” Kam said. “We’re getting callers flowing in every day.”

Since participants can’t come in the building due to COVID, clients in the Christmas hamper program will have a phone conversation to go over what kind of toys and gifts their children would like. The team at the food bank will choose gifts specifically for each household and pack their items for pick-up alongside their food.

The Gravenhurst Fire Department collects items for the Salvation Army as part of their annual toy drive.

Even with the increase in need at the food bank, Kam encourages locals to reach out for help if they need it and to spread the word for others that could use their services. More people need assistance this year, Kam said, and that’s exactly what they’re here for.

“If you know someone in need, a neighbour, a family member, a friend, someone you encounter, please tell them to not hesitate to give us a call,” Kam said. “I know that it’s a tough call to make sometimes, especially if you’ve never used a food bank before or had to ask for help, but we’re all human and especially in days like these, any one of us could have that need.”

Kam also wants to thank the community for its ongoing support. The food bank is a conduit for help, passing it from one hand to another, she said, but it’s the people who choose to support each other who are making a direct impact on their neighbours.

“What we do is an expression of their giving, so it is so great what we can offer people at Christmas because the community is great in their giving,” Kam said. “I just want to encourage the community. We couldn’t do this without them, and it really is their expression of how they love each other in Muskoka because people here are really well looked after.”

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