Montreal food banks prepare for a surge amid COVID-19 pandemic

Extended Hands, a food bank at a church in Lachine, feeds 75 to 100 families in a regular week. It is already seeing more people coming by, and next week, it is expecting even more people will need help.

Extended Hands in Lachine usually has food left over after distribution day — but not this week

Groceries from Moisson Montréal arrive at Extended Hands in Lachine. Volunteers, who now work a safe distance away from each other, will distribute them. (Submitted by Bishop David Burton)

Montreal food banks are straining to meet what they expect will be a growing demand caused by the COVID-19 pandemic

In Lachine, only one food bank remains open. Three to four other groups in the borough have had to close because of the exigencies of the virus.

Extended Hands is based in a church at the corner of St-Antoine Street and 32nd Avenue and is now in its 15th year.

The food bank feeds 75 to 100 families in a regular week. It is already seeing more people coming by, and next week, it is expecting even more people will need help.

"With people being off work, they still have bills to pay, their kids are at home and eating more, and they are waiting for their EI to come through," said president Glynis Jenkins-Burton. "The need has gone up significantly."

Before, Jenkins-Burton said, the organization would have a little food left over after its distribution day on Wednesday.

"But now, we have nothing left. We are cleaned out."

Moisson Montréal bracing for increase, too

Extended Hands gets most of its food from Moisson Montréal, the larger organization that normally provides food to about 250 groups in the Montreal area.

So far, Moisson Montréal has managed to stay ahead of the pandemic, but executive director Richard Daneau said he has seen some changes in recent weeks.

Thirty per cent of small food banks have closed their doors, and that has caused a lot of displacement.

"Agency A closes. Then Agency B calls to say we need more food to service Agency A's customers," Daneau explained.

He says so far, demand has remained stable, but he expects that to change. "There will be an economic contraction. There will be more people in need."

The food bank has teamed up with the city to deal with the upsurge. In exchange for providing the city with fruit, vegetables, cheese and granola bars to feed the homeless, municipal employees are taking the place of volunteers.

A Montreal firefighter volunteers at Moisson Montréal food bank in Montreal on Friday. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Moisson Montréal gets most of its food from large distributors and manufacturers, such as Kraft, Kellogg's, Danone and General Mills. Daneau believes that will continue as usual, and that despite what he calls "the strange behaviours" of the last weeks, the food distribution system is stable.

"We believe there may be momentary shortages, but the system will rebalance itself."

Moisson Montréal will be receiving a boost from the federal government — on Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced $100 million for food banks and breakfast clubs. 

Trudeau acknowledged food banks are facing challenges, with fewer donations than they normally would receive and fewer volunteers. 

"The work being done by food banks is essential," he said.

Keeping everyone safe

At Extended Hands, they have made some changes to keep clients and volunteers safe.

Instead of its regular group of 15 to 20 volunteers, it is now getting by with six volunteers. They maintain social distance and constantly clean their premises.

In the past, clients would arrive with their own bags and go from table to table, to choose their own food. But with concerns about the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the volunteers now put together bags of groceries and hand them out to each family.

A volunteer at Extended Hands prepares bags of groceries for people who need them. (Submitted by Bishop David Burton)

The organization is no longer asking for a $4 donation from people who are picking up food; Jenkins-Burton says it seems like too much to ask in these times.

But the group's expenses still have to be paid. It now has to buy plastic bags to distribute the food, and it still has to rent a truck once a week to pick up food from Moisson Montréal.

Jenkins-Burton says at this point, they are not asking for volunteers, but food and money donations are appreciated.

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