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October 05, 2012

Fighting hunger close to home

Food banks were meant to be a temporary fix, but in 30 years they’ve become part of the Canadian scene. Here’s what you can do to help.

It’s harvest season — time for autumn colours, crisp evenings, turkey and pumpkin pie — and appeals from your local food bank. But how can it be that in one of the richest and most-favoured countries in the world, people are going hungry?

In the Greater Toronto Area alone, there were more than 1.1 million visits to food banks in the year ending in March 2012, according to the 2012 version of Who’s Hungry: Faces of Hunger, the annual report by the Daily Bread Food Bank released last month. That’s an 18% increase over the pre-recession year of 2008. And for every individual who comes to a food bank, notes the report, “there is at least one other person who cannot afford food and is struggling with hunger who does not come.”

Every month, 148,460 people go to Montreal food banks, says Moisson Montreal’s 2011-2012 annual report, Feeding the chain of solidarity. The 10.4 million kg of food distributed there that year was up 14% from the previous year.

In Vancouver, the Greater Vancouver Food Bank Society helps feed more than 25,000 people each week; when it was founded in 1982 (to address the effects of the recession of the time), it served 200 people.

What drives people to food banks?

How can this happen in Canada, you might ask. Don’t we have a social safety net?

What we have isn’t enough, according to Who’s Hungry: Faces of Hunger. In cities such as Toronto, shelter costs are so high that for many people on social assistance, people with disabilities, refugees, new immigrants, seniors and, increasingly, the working poor, there isn’t enough money left over for food. Toronto food bank clients spend an average of 71% of their incomes on shelter, leaving an average of $5.83 per person, per day for everything else, including food, says the report. Daily Bread is part of an umbrella group lobbying the provincial government to establish a housing benefit for low-income individuals and families, to help address this issue.

Here’s what you can do to fight hunger in your community:

Start a donation habit. Food banks are always asking for donations of things like baby formula, tuna and peanut butter, as these are high-need, high-nutrition items, and they tend to get lots of volunteers to sort donations. But the volume of donated food rises and falls with the seasons, and many food banks frequently face empty shelves. Think about adding a “food bank” category to your weekly grocery list, and donating consistently throughout the year.

Food is fine, but money is better. As well as donating food, consider writing a cheque. That allows your food bank to take advantage of quantity buying and get more with your money. Plus, if the food bank is a registered charity, you can get an income tax receipt for your cash donation.

Give your time. Your local food bank needs hands to receive, sort and shelve the food coming in, and to prepare and distribute the food boxes going out.

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