Kitchener-Waterloo

Need for food on rise as full impact of pandemic looms, says Waterloo region food bank

Between March 2020 and March of this year, The Food Bank of Waterloo Region saw a 276 per cent increase in calls to the food assistance referral line. As well, more than 30,900 people and 2,600 new households received food assistance.

276% increase in calls to food assistance referral line since 2020

Wendi Campbell is CEO of The Food Bank of Waterloo Region. She says the food bank has seen a significant increase in people who need food during the pandemic. (Submitted by Jennifer Judges)

When Wendi Campbell went shopping early in the pandemic, she saw empty shelves at her grocery store just like everyone else.

But the impact of those shortages were magnified at The Food Bank of Waterloo Region.

"I know myself, walking into a grocery store in those very early days, looking for things like chickpeas or pasta or peanut butter, they were incredibly hard to find," Campbell, CEO of the food bank, said in an interview with CBC.

"We know that there were shortages of flour and yeast and that happened here at the food bank as well."

Campbell said the food bank had to make changes to how they delivered food to people and how they acquired that food. They had to find new suppliers.

Rather than getting to pick the items they needed, for a time the food bank offered clients pre-packed food hampers "which weren't the ideal situation but it really helped minimize the amount of staff and volunteer time at a time when we were really uncertain about safety protocols," Campbell said.

While some pickup locations were closed as volunteers were advised to stay home, the food bank compensated, said Campbell, by implementing a new delivery program to get people food.

Increased demand

As the food bank made those changes, demand increased.

Campbell said in the last year, the food bank distributed 4.6 million pounds of food, up 26 per cent between March 23, 2020, to March 22, 2021.

There was a 276 per cent increase in calls to the food assistance referral line, with an average of 53 calls each week. 

More than 30,900 people and 2,600 new households received food assistance.

The impact of the pandemic has been felt on food banks across the province. Last November. Feed Ontario released its annual Hunger Report and found the number of first-time food bank visitors spiked by 26.5 per cent during the first four months of the pandemic.

'We know people will struggle'

At the time, Feed Ontario's executive director Carolyn Stewart said it was "extremely concerning" to see the rise in people needing to access food banks, including people who were employed.

"As these numbers continue to grow, it really creates concerns for us that the income is not keeping up with what everyone needs to afford their most basic cost of living," Stewart said.

Campbell said in the long term, the food bank is working to resume regular service and connect people to the support networks in the community.

"We're a little concerned about the short term," she said. "We don't fully understand the economic impacts that this pandemic is going to have. We know people will struggle when it's time to go back to work."

Listen to the full interview with The Food Bank of Waterloo Region CEO Wendi Campbell:

The Food Bank of Waterloo Region says need in the community is up so far during the pandemic, and the full impact of the past 16 months may still be to come. In this interview, CEO Wendi Campbell talks to The Morning Edition's Craig Norris about the increase in need and the importance of the food network set up to get people the items. 7:45

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