Calls steadily increasing to food helpline, says Food First N.L.
Food prices up, heating bills climbing, and people's finances haven't changed, says CEO Josh Smee
Food First N.L. says its community food helpline is ringing off the hook with a dramatic increase in calls from people who are hungry and need help.
Josh Smee, chief executive officer of the non-profit organization, said the helpline — which guides people toward food programs near them and in some cases distributes gift cards — receives about 300 to 350 calls in the summer months. In November, there were more than 500.
"The rate is steadily rising," Smee told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show.
"It's now quite a bit higher than when it was during the COVID lockdown in the early part of 2021, which is really something to see. It's significantly higher than then."
Smee said seniors have support from seniors' organizations, and those under 18 have support from dedicated youth organizations. He said many of Food First's calls are coming from people in the working population and single-parent families, or those who have dietary needs not being met by community food banks.
"The majority of folks tend to be in that demographic," he said.
"I think we hear a lot from folks who have been doing everything they can to help their families out. We do hear a lot from folks with kids."
Smee said it's been a challenge to stay on top of the calls, and there's a backlog that has greatly increased, leaving resources "completely strapped."
Smee said the increase in calls is partly driven by funding drying up for organizations that started food programs during the pandemic, he said. Food prices are also shooting up, he said, at a time when the days grow colder and heating bills start to climb.
"I think we're seeing something that's going to persist, unfortunately. Food prices are sharply up [and] there's still some economic ramifications per households from COVID," he said.
"We have, at the same time, declining resources in the emergency systems and we haven't seen a lot of change in people's household finances."
Smee is encouraging people to give cash donations to their local food programs, and to email their MPs and MHAs to push for change.
Meanwhile, another organization is stepping in to lighten the load.
The Muslim Association of Newfoundland and Labrador launched a new food bank, called N.L. Food Umbrella, in the east end of St. John's on Wednesday, a project that had been in the works for a year.
"As we all know, there's a dire need of providing quality food for people," said president Syed Pirzada.
"It's been really difficult for, not just people in Newfoundland, but all over. So that gave us the idea that we should start a food bank."
Pirzada said the food bank's doors are open to anyone who needs help.
He said the road to getting registered with the federal government was a challenge over the pandemic, but that's because there's plans to expand beyond offering help with just food.
Pirzada said he wants to help single mothers, develop a walk-in clinic with family physicians who can donate their time once a week and, as an organization, provide disaster relief for areas outside Canada.
"There is a huge need," he said. "We are in a great country, but the thing is still people are sleeping hungry, still people are having issues of how to put food on the table."
With files from The St. John's Morning Show