Ottawa Food Bank predicts hard times ahead

The CEO of the Ottawa Food Bank is worried that the need for help will spike once government assistance for COVID-19 runs out. 

CEO Michael Maidment worries what happens once federal assistance programs end

Non-perishable food items are seen in a container at the Ottawa Food Bank. Michael Maidment, the agency's CEO, says food bank usage spiked after the 2008 recession, and a similar trend could emerge once COVID-19 assistance runs out. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

The CEO of the Ottawa Food Bank is worried that the need for help will spike once government assistance for COVID-19 runs out. 

Food banks across the city have seen a 15 per cent increase in first-time users during the pandemic, with some spiking by as much as 30 per cent, according to Michael Maidment.

For now numbers have stabilized, Maidment said, mostly due to federal assistance like the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) — a benefit, however, that's only available for 16 weeks. 

"The big concern that I have is what happens when the federal assistance program [ends]," Maidment said, pointing out that after the 2008 recession, food bank usage hit an all-time high in Canada.

"There are economists who are telling us that what's happening right now, and what will continue to happen with the economy post-pandemic, is worse than 2008," he added. "The other thing that we know is after 2008, it took two years for food bank use to peak. And so I think we're in for a bit of a rough ride ahead."

Maidment, seen here in May 2019, is calling for some sort of income guarantee program to help with the aftermath of COVID-19. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

A lifeline for many

Lucy Agba is one of those people who used the Ottawa Food Bank for the first time during the pandemic.

Agba moved from Montreal to Ottawa on March 3, just before the vast majority of services shut down. Her monthly rent was roughly $200 more, making it tough to make ends meet.

"That was major. It was a great palliative. If I was to buy what I was given, I would have spent close to $150 or $200," she said.

Staff there even remembered her name after only two visits, she added. 

Lucy Agba moved to Ottawa in March, just as the pandemic hit, and says the food bank has been a huge help in making ends meet. (Halima Sogbesan/CBC )

The food bank has been a lifeline for Agnes Nakitende too.

In 2019, Nakitende and her family immigrated to Canada from Uganda. They'd been used to bringing in two incomes, something that changed drastically when they arrived in this country. 

"We could not afford to have a meal on the table," she said. "Then, when we went to Parkdale Food Centre, there was a sigh of relief."

Nakitende said she's had to teach her children to ration the food from the food bank, something Maidment worries more people will have to do.

He said food donations have been down 80 to 90 per cent since the pandemic hit, although monetary donations have increased. 

Maidment is now advocating for some kind of basic income guarantee program, with CERB offering a good example of how that might work.

About the Author

Natalia is a multi-platform journalist in Ottawa. She has also worked for CBC in P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador.

With files from Halima Sogbesan and Julia Sisler


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