Pandemic drives up demand for food support groups — with more challenges ahead
Province already had high food insecurity rates when COVID-19 struck
Like countless others, when the pandemic hit, Judy Gough and her son Robbie holed up inside their home to stay safe.
But while they were safe from COVID-19, the pandemic brought them other hardships, including their ability to access and afford food.
"I live with my adult son, who has autism, low functioning, so it's been a challenge," said Gough.
Physical distancing, arrows telling people where to go, and the pressure to wear a facemask, which Gough said Robbie doesn't like, all made grocery shopping impossible.
Gough, who is a single mother, cut their cable subscription to afford grocery deliveries and the COVID-19-related increase in food prices.
Help from a food bank
"It's hard," she said. "I guess basically the money goes on rent, power and food. And then that's it. There's no luxuries."
She ended up getting help from a local food bank that delivered.
Gough's struggle with food insecurity is a scenario that's being played out in homes across the province.
While the data has yet to be tabulated on how COVID-19 has affected food insecurity rates, what is known is that the provincial government and food support groups felt they had to act quickly to shore up systems and respond to a growing need as the shutdown started.
"One of the things that came up quickly is everyone could see there was about to be a crunch. Both in terms of demand for services but also in terms of labour and support," said Josh Smee, CEO of non-profit group Food First NL.
Smee said while groups were losing volunteers because of health concerns, private donations were drying up because people's workplaces closed and demand was rising.
Coming into the pandemic, Newfoundland and Labrador already had the second-highest rate of food insecurity among provinces, according to the latest report from Proof, a research team that investigates and publishes annual reports on food insecurity using data from Statistics Canada.
Proof also found that St. John's had the highest rate out of 35 metropolitan areas examined across the country, with one in six households affected.
At the end of March, the provincial government arranged for $500,000 in emergency food support to be distributed to the province's food banks and community groups.
Food First NL was put in charge of distributing the funds.
"When we put that out for a call for applications we got $1.2 million in requests on it. Not shocking but still obviously a challenge," said Smee.
Dozens of requests
Requests came in from all over the province, and to date at least 122 different groups have received funding.
The money went toward buying food supplies, providing transportation and delivery services, purchasing personal protective equipment, hiring staffing to replace volunteers and other types of logistical support.
Smee said while they managed to meet labour requests, initially they could only meet part of the food supply requests.
Since then, however, Food First NL managed to come up with an extra $340,000 — much of that from federal programs and partner organizations.
"Now what we're trying to do is fill that pot up until everyone who made a request gets something close to what they need," he said.
One of the groups that received funding was the Salvation Army's New Hope Community Centre in St. John's.
"We are seeing a good number of new clients coming to us at this time for support," said spokesperson Maj. Rene Loveless.
Loveless said some weeks numbers have gone up, others not so much.
In May alone, though, he said they provided food assistance for 1,400 people through their food bank and community meals program — the equivalent of thousands of bags of groceries going out.
"There's a whole range of different people that come to us. We serve many families that have younger children. We also see many seniors and singles and students that come to us," he said.
"Everyone has a different story. For vulnerable families and individuals, this time of uncertainty only makes challenging situations even more difficult for them."
And there could be more challenging situations on the horizon.
Loveless said they expect more demand when pandemic funding like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit ends.
"There could be a real surge when it comes to the need. That is certainly a likely scenario," he said.
Fed Up is a series by CBC NL, in collaboration with Food First NL, exploring the issues surrounding food insecurity and why many people in the province struggle to access food.