Food drives are a hallmark of the holidays, but they are a year-round business for food banks and other agencies, which deliver food and other necessities to less-fortunate residents. This year, donations to the CBC's Sounds of the Season will benefit Toronto's only mobile food bank, run jointly by the Daily Bread and the Red Cross.

When the mobile unit started in 2002-03, it served 60 clients, says program coordinator Kathleen Nicoll. The hampers were delivered by one part-time driver who was at the wheel of the unit's only truck. Now, two drivers with two trucks serve more than 380 households,

"Our resources haven't grown that much," Nicoll told CBC News. "So we are definitely operating at capacity right now."

Martha Gutierrez

Martha Gutierrez came to Canada from Mexico as a refugee, and now she works at the mobile food bank run jointly by the Daily Bread and the Red Cross. (CBC News)

The unit largely serves clients with mental or physical health challenges that prevent them from accessing a walk-in food bank in their community. In some cases, clients are older but still live independently despite mobility challenges, while others may have been discharged from hospital but still cannot get around.

"Their nearest food bank could be a block away," Nicoll said. "That person needing that food bank could face as big a challenge as someone needing to walk 30 blocks."

Michael Kontarakis

Michael Kontarakis says Toronto's only mobile food bank "kept me from going hungry." (CBC News)

Staffers and volunteers pack hampers according to each client's dietary or household needs, Nicoll said. Food allergies will be accommodated, while families with babies will be given diapers and other supplies.

"A lot of people think of food banks as basically 'I'm going to get some cans of soup and some beans,'" Nicoll said.

The two agencies know their project is working by the response they hear at the door, she said.

"Most of our clients are isolated. They need this service because they don't live with anyone else or they don't have those relationships with anyone else who are able to help them," Nicoll said.

"So just seeing a friendly face at the door brightens their day, it serves as a check-in, we can make sure they are okay."

'People cry'

Martha Gutierrez works at the mobile unit's sorting facility, packing hampers for clients. She came to Canada as a refugee from Mexico and once received hampers to feed her family.

"I had two kids at the time and it was emotional to see the food on the table," she told CBC.

She packs hampers "with dignity," meaning she places each item inside with care. Clients are living in difficult circumstances, she says, and so it's important to present their hamper "in a nice way."

"When they see a carton of eggs, they start jumping because they are thinking they are going to have a nice breakfast the next day," she said. "People cry."

'It kept me from going hungry'

Client Michael Kontarakis found the program by searching online. He called to find out if he qualified for home delivery, and was relieved to find out that he did.

"Unfortunately I was fine at one time, and then I wasn't. My health turned around, things got very difficult and money became more tight," Kontarakis told CBC.

"So this program really made a big difference in my life because, at times, it kept me from going hungry. I mean, really hungry."

Kontarakis says the driver arrives at the same time every day, and he anticipates his arrival. The hamper always contains items he would have purchased for himself if he was able.

"It's like being in the desert and being thirsty and then somebody just coming with a tray with glasses of ice cubes in it and cold water and then they give you the drink," Kontarakis said of what the service means to him.

"In fact, they hand it to you and help you drink it."

The mobile unit delivery service drops off hampers twice a month across the city, and is always looking for volunteers.

CBC Toronto's Sounds of the Season (SOTS) is our annual charity drive in support of local food banks. Please visit our website for details on the December 4 event, and ways you can donate.