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Bare shelves at one Ontario food bank illustrate summer struggle

This June was the worst in recent memory for the St. Thomas Elgin Food Bank reflecting a province-wide problem of low donations during summer months.

The dip in summer donations shows 'how haphazard' the system is, says nutrition professor Valerie Tarasuk

Karen McDade, general manager at the St. Thomas Elgin Food Bank, has never seen so many empty boxes. (provided by Karen McDade)

Karen McDade had never seen anything like it: a food bank without a single box of Kraft Dinner.

That was the situation at the St. Thomas Elgin Food Bank this June, according to McDade, who is the general manager. They were also out of just about everything else, from canned soup and meat to bagels and peanut butter.

"Some of my volunteers have been here 15 to 25 years and they've said, 'Karen we have never not had mac and cheese. We have never not had this kind of soup. We've just never seen the shelf so bare,'" said McDade.

In the five years that McDade has been with the food bank that serves approximately 750 people each month, she said demand has spiked. More people are moving to the town in southwestern Ontario but the work isn't always there when they arrive. 

Manufacturing in the area is on the decline, and the work that is available is often part-time or contract-based. More families are using the food bank to fill in the gaps. 

Summers tough for hungry kids

Food banks across the province struggle in the summertime, as donations go down and hunger stays the same. (Submitted by the Ontario Association of Food Banks)

The bare shelves at the St. Thomas food bank location are not unique. Summers are always a tough time, according to the Ontario Association of Food Banks, as donations dip.

Most people like to do their giving around the holidays, but the association says hunger remains the same.

In fact, families can have an even greater need for food banks in the summertime, because school lunch and snack programs wrap up when the school year does.

"[Demand] at the very least remains the same while donations are decreasing," said Amanda King, director of communications and research at the Ontario Association of Food Banks, adding that the problem exists at food banks throughout the province.  

About 12 per cent of food banks report running out of food at least once a year, she said.

"It doesn't necessarily mean their shelves have gone completely dry, but they may run out of certain specific items or become very, very low [so] that it's impacting their service," she said.

Food banks a stop-gap solution: nutrition professor

For Valerie Tarasuk, a professor in nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto, the fact that food banks are so dependent on seasonal whims points to how 'haphazard' the whole system is.

"It's just another illustration of what a problematic thing it is for us to try and manage people's inability to afford food through charitable donations," said Tarasuk.

People are struggling because they're put in situations they can't manage.- Valerie Tarasuk

Tarasuk said a better way of dealing with food insecurity is to deal with its root cause: inadequate income. Research shows that the people who struggle to afford food tend to be:

  • Living on a low income
  • Using social assistance
  • Trying to get by with part-time or contingent work

 "It's no accident who's struggling to afford the food they need, it's not a random thing, the research shows that it's very predictable," said Tarasuk.

"They're struggling because they're put in situations they can't manage."

Around one in eight households in Ontario are food insecure, and only about a quarter to a fifth of those who are food insecure actually use food banks, Tarasuk said. That means the demand seen at food banks is just 'the tip of the iceberg,' she said.

The Ontario Association of Food Banks agrees. In addition to encouraging Ontarians to donate to food banks—and to spread out their donations throughout the year—they are also involved with advocating for increased social assistance and affordable housing. 

King said around 70 per cent of those who access food banks are on social assistance, and 90 per cent of food bank clients are rental or social housing tenants.

"Hunger is a symptom of a much larger issue, which is poverty," she said.