'It snowballed': Montreal food banks and other charities struggle to meet demand

Thousands of new clients have signed up for food relief for the first time, because they are out of work or forced to stay home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thousands of new clients sign up for food relief as economic shutdown takes its toll

People line up for the opening of the weekly food donation at the Réseau d'entraide in Montreal's Verdun borough on Monday. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

A food bank in Montreal's west end is likely moving into a nearby hockey arena so it can safely package 160 food-relief baskets a day, now that it has seen a 2,000 per cent increase in demand.

The Depot Community Food Centre in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce is far from the only non-profit agency experiencing an alarming increase in the number of people seeking nourishment. The economic shutdown has left thousands of cupboards and refrigerators bare.

"A lot of the stories we hear are related to loss of jobs or loss of employment income or reduction in employment income," said Daniel Rotman, the Depot's director.

"There are also people who mention that they have to stay at home with their kids and can't work."

Used to receiving about 110 new applicants a month, the Depot is seeing that many every day, he said, and many of those applicants are seeking help for the first time. The organization has burned through nearly half its annual food budget in a single month.

The Depot is bringing in staff from other non-profit agencies in the neighbourhood to help as organizers aim to set up a new sorting centre inside the Doug Harvey Arena, where workers will be able to maintain a safe distance while preparing food baskets designed to last recipients a month. 

"Our current space doesn't allow us to practise social distancing," Rotman said. 

The organization is giving away close to 50,000 kilograms of food this month alone, and May could be even busier, he said.

Multicaf, a community cafeteria in Côte-des-Neiges, is relying heavily on volunteers to prepare meals for nearly 7,000 people a week. That's 6,000 more than usual. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

Blue collar workers from Côte-des-Neiges—NDG and Côte Saint-Luc are delivering the food baskets, so clients can avoid going out. More than 50 per cent of the Depot's clients have underlying health issues, Rotman said.

"We are providing healthy food, trying to keep people fed with nutritious food," he said. "So if they do get sick, they can be strong enough to fight the virus."

Centraide raises money for the cause

The federal government has earmarked $350 million for front-line groups like the Depot, Rotman said, and private donors have contributed, as well.

Centraide has received some 490 requests for help from Montreal non-profit agencies, and it has allocated $3.8 million to 309 community groups, so far.

Centraide, which raises money to support a network of local agencies, has gone into overdrive, collecting more than $7.5 million to date as it prepares for the pandemic's expected economic fallout.

But the strain is still felt across the city, as non-profit agencies struggle to keep up with the influx of new clients.

Multicaf, a community cafeteria in Côte-des-Neiges, is relying heavily on volunteers to prepare meals for nearly 7,000 people per week. That's up from an average of 1,000, according to the general manager, Jean-Sébastien Patrice.

"We just want to make sure that every person in the borough has what they need," he said.

Multicaf's general manager, Jean-Sébastien Patrice, holds up a prepared meal that the agency makes for those in need. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

Some borough organizations have even switched their mandates entirely during the pandemic. The Loyola Youth Centre in western NDG usually serves as a busy after-school program and day camp, running sports teams and other activities.

Co-director Christine Richardson said the youth centre has now shifted to doing wellness checks on vulnerable families and helping those in need.

She said they have been donating computers to kids to help them keep up with their studies online and helping recent immigrants who struggle in French or English to fill out government forms to get assistance.

The organization has also given out grocery-store gift cards to about 100 families in need.

"It snowballed," Richardson said. "It started with, 'We can get you a computer. We can get you a gift card.' Finally, we realized that the needs were kind of similar everywhere, and it was pretty widespread."

In the Verdun borough, the Réseau d'entraide de Verdun has had people lining up around the block waiting for a chance to receive fresh vegetables and non-perishable goods from volunteers wearing homemade masks.

Volunteers at Le Réseau d'entraide wear diving masks as they get food ready Monday, while a long line of people waited for service. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Moisson Montréal increases output by 30%

Sam Watts, CEO of the Welcome Hall Mission, told CBC there has not been a notable increase in homelessness, but the demand on food services has gone way up. He encourages people to donate or volunteer if they can.

Moisson Montréal, which provided 15 million kilograms of food to roughly 250 Montreal-area food banks last year, has increased its offering by 30 per cent since April 6 — providing up to 1,300 kilograms to those agencies every week.

It's optional to take the extra food, and the majority are taking it, the organization's executive director, Richard Daneau, told CBC News Wednesday.

Between the government support and the donations rolling in from the agricultural and food sector, Daneau said, it has been possible to ramp up Moisson Montréal's offering.

Daneau said his agency will reassess the situation next month and adjust as needed, but if Moisson Montréal has to maintain that pace for a year, he said, it will amount to an additional $25 million in food. 

Richard Daneau, executive director of the city's central food collection depot, Moisson Montréal, says the organization has increased its offering by 30 per cent. (CBC)

As daunting as that sounds, the community has been there to help, he said. 

And volunteers tell CBC that using their newfound downtime to help organizations has been a rewarding experience.

Restaurant worker Antoine Gagnon, who is volunteering at Multicaf, said, "I'm learning new stuff — doing something, helping people. It's perfect."

Côte-des-Neiges—NDG Mayor Sue Montgomery has been strapping on a mask, offering her hands along with the additional $200,000 her council distributed to 15 front-line organizations this week.

"I have to say it's very good for your mental health to come and feel like you're actually doing something productive," she said, encouraging others to join the effort.

With files from Simon Nakonechny and Lauren McCallum

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