Rising inflation, supply chain slowdowns: Why food insecurity in Hamilton is on the rise

[Provided by Mission Services of Hamilton]

Canadians are facing food insecurity in swelling numbers. New stats from Food Banks Canada show an estimated seven million Canadians, or about one in five, are going hungry, with 23 per cent reporting they are eating less than they believe they should.

The pandemic, rising housing costs, inflation, soaring gas prices and supply chain slowdowns are just some of the reasons many no longer have enough money for food. Heading into the summer months, food banks and centres are preparing for one of the toughest periods in history.

“Food insecurity affects people in so many different areas,” says Jim O’Keeffe, manager of food services at Mission Services of Hamilton. “If somebody has food insecurity, they have life insecurity. If you can’t afford food, how are you affording a place to live, clothing, emergency things that come up for your kids, a car breaking down, medications…. It’s a much wider, problematic area than just being insecure about food. And it’s been on the rise for years.”

In partnership with Mission Services of Hamilton, a non-profit social service agency focused on providing healthy food and safe housing, we take a look at why demand for services like food banks and community kitchens keeps increasing, plus how community donations can make a difference in feeding families.

READ MORE: Canadians turning to food banks as costs of groceries soar

Recovering from the pandemic

Although things have reopened in the wake of the pandemic, people continue to catch up from layoffs, shutdowns and restrictions, says Sue Smith, director of food services at Mission Services of Hamilton. She notes many of the clients she’s seen work two or three part-time jobs in retail or the food service industry with no benefits.

“When you’ve been in a deficit for so long without that income or stability, it takes time,” she says. “You’re in arrears for a great amount of time and you’re just trying to catch up, still working with minimum wage.”

Last year, visitors to Mission Services of Hamilton’s Good Food Centre increased 31 per cent year-over-year to nearly 54,000 people. In 2022, it’s on track for at least a 10 per cent increase over 2021 in overall visits. Since the pandemic began, more than 2,700 families who were not clients before have accessed the centre in search of emergency food.

Smith and O’Keeffe anticipate that number will continue to rise in the coming months, especially as in-school breakfast and lunch programs end for the summer.

“We’re seeing record numbers of people who have never been to a food bank,” O’Keeffe says. “They didn’t come for the two years through COVID, but now things are slowly coming apart. It’s catching up to people and all their resources are gone.”

Feeding families in Hamilton

Mission Services of Hamilton oversees many food services and programs, including East Hamilton Food Centre and all the kitchens at shelters run by the organization.

The agency’s Good Food Centre is unique, however, as it meets certain criteria — all food items must contain less than five ingredients, for example — to receive a specific designation that distinguishes it from a food bank or community pantry, according to a framework developed by Community Food Centres Canada.

[Provided by Mission Services of Hamilton]

As a result, a lot of what the centre gives away are single ingredients like proteins, milk, produce and other things people can take home and prepare on their own.

“A lot of people do want to make their own food,” O’Keeffe says. “Every week, we see people from all over the world. Food is home. We want them to feel at home and be able to raise their children the way they were raised and the way they think they should be raised.”

In order to provide those ingredients, Smith says, the Good Food Centre has an impressive refrigeration system and keeps careful records of what it has in stock. Staff keep private notes on the families who visit so as to provide clients with products they will be able to use. Smith explains that a family without access to an oven, for example, won’t benefit from a raw turkey during the holidays.

She adds the centre has a unique no-turn-away policy. As long as staff are present, they give anyone coming to the door the food they need.

[Provided by Mission Services of Hamilton]

From January to April this year, the centre distributed more than 1,500 food packs each month on average. Each pack contains a seven to 10 day supply of foods like fresh produce, snacks for school-aged children, and healthy staples such as low-sugar cereals, milk, cheese, grains and meat.

Unfortunately, Smith says, the centre has also been affected by rising grocery costs and the increased number of visitors, and is turning to the community for help. While they will always accept food drives or specific donations, she says financial donations remain the most beneficial way to help.

“I can stretch the cash into a lot more than I can a food drive,” she explains. “We also really believe in equity in our food banks — the first person should get the same as the last person. We try to make sure that what we pack is consistent.”

“We fight tooth and nail every day to make sure we fill our space and we never run out of food,” O’Keeffe adds. “If somebody has to go to the ER, nobody makes an appointment. They show up because they need to be there. That relates directly to what’s happening in the lives of the clients we see. They don’t know what their life is going to be like four to six weeks from now.”

READ MORE: Canadian food banks feeling pinch as food prices soar amid rising inflation

To learn more about food insecurity in Hamilton or to donate to Mission Services of Hamilton, please visit the donation page on their website.

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