James Simpson is 23 and has been using food banks for the past year. Being on Ontario Works, it’s a struggle stretching his food supply to the end of the month.

Even so, it took him many months before he could face having to line up for food. 

'There's only so much food. It just is not possible to serve any more than these 90 to100 families we see every day.' —Alan Whittle, Good Shepherd Centre

"I couldn’t bring myself to go," said Simpson, standing in his sparse apartment, which is unfurnished except for a bed.

"I come from a proud family and it just felt like something I couldn’t do."

Simpson has worked odd jobs as a mover and on construction sites, but says work is hard to find now. OW barely covers rent for his two-room apartment on Barton Street East. Even though it’s several blocks to the Good Shepherd Centre food bank on Mary Street North, he walks to save money on bus fare.

Hunger goes beyond the holidays

James is one of the many faces of hunger in Hamilton. Five days a week, six hours a day, hundreds of men, women and children line up outside Good Shepherd Centre’s food bank.

The doors close even if people are still waiting.

"There's only so much food," said spokesperson Alan Whittle.

Food bank users

  • 44 per cent are children (under 18)
  • 32 per cent are single
  • 10 per cent are couples with no children
  • 42 per cent are single parent families
  • 16 per cent are dual parent families

Source: Hamilton Food Share

"It just is not possible to serve any more than these 90 to100 families we see every day."

Across the city, in Ancaster, Dundas, Stoney Creek and other areas, the same scene is repeated regularly. When the holidays are over, the hunger doesn't end. In fact, it's when the real work for agencies begins, because donations typically drop off after Christmas. They must find ways to stretch what they’ve been given to last over the next few months.

"It's staggering," said Whittle.

"This is not a place where people want to come, but they have no choice. They do it out of desperation."

This Christmas season, agencies across the city pulled together to give people in Hamilton a little taste of Christmas. Schools and churches held food drives, and corporations such as Fortinos helped out by donating food.

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James Simpson has worked odd jobs as a mover and on construction sites, but says work is hard to find now. Ontario Works benefits barely cover the rent for his two-room apartment on Barton Street East. (Denise Davy/CBC)

Agencies were able to hand out more than 14,000 hampers to feed 38,000 people. And more than 2,500 people came to Good Shepherd’s annual Christmas dinner, the largest in the city. Like all agencies, Good Shepherd relies heavily on donations from drives. But hunger is a year-round problem.

In Hamilton, more than 18,600 people turn to food banks every month. Good Shepherd Centre sees more than 40,000 men, women and children at its food bank every year. The food bank accounts for one-quarter of the food they distribute each year. Many more come to the centre for hot meals and food is also served at shelters.

Whittle said running the food bank plus the hot meal program and shelter meals costs them $1.8 million annually. If it weren’t for food banks, 71 per cent of people who use them said they would be homeless, according to recent study by Hamilton Food Share.

No money for food

Whittle said people on Ontario Works are particularly hard hit. On average, they have $3 a day left over for food, bus tickets and toiletries after paying their rent.

'In the Great Depression you’d see men lining up [for food]. Now it’s women and children, too. Back then it was temporary but this is really about the destruction of our social safety net.' —Joanne Santucci, Hamilton Food Share

"That's why you get people walking here," said Whittle.

Joanne Santucci, executive director of Hamilton Food Share, said she’s heard stories of people selling their furniture and family heirlooms to buy food.

"We hear from a lot of parents that there are many days when they don’t eat so their children will have food," said Santucci. 

Like many people whose job is trying to feed the hungry, Santucci is frustrated.

"In the Great Depression you’d see men lining up. Now it’s women and children, too. Back then it was temporary but this is really about the destruction of our social safety net," said Santucci.

Today the faces of hunger include new immigrants, young families, single mothers, unemployed youth and seniors, said Santucci.

And they’re people like Amanda Stewart, 39, who went on disability allowance four years ago when a rare blood condition left her so ill she could barely get out of bed.

Stewart sent a note to Good Shepherd thanking them for the "luxury" of being able to push a grocery cart through their Christmas store.

"For those other 364 days of the year, I don’t have enough money to fill up a cart so I can’t justify using it," Stewart wrote. "Thank you to the volunteer who acknowledged this and allowed me to push the cart around. It was a small thing but a really big luxury."