The Current

Charities offering hot meals grapple with shrinking donations — and soaring demand

Rising food prices are making it harder for charities that run food programs to help those in need — but one expert says structural changes are needed to eliminate the poverty that drives the need for those services to begin with.

People who once donated are now availing of help themselves, says charity worker

Holiday meals are prepared at a charity in 2017. Amid rising food costs, some charities offering hot meals say they may have to offer turkey soup, or turkey pasta, instead of a full dinner. (Martin Trainor/CBC )

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A Halifax charity that offers hot meals to those in need is seeing smaller donations this holiday season due to the rising cost of living, but says the spirit of generosity is strong as ever.

"We had a lady who taped a loonie, a single loonie in her envelope and said, you know, 'This is all I have. Hopefully you can help somebody with it,'" said Ron Dunn, chief development officer at Souls Harbour Rescue Mission in Halifax.

Dunn's team called to say thank her, and learned she is a senior who is struggling financially.

"Her situation is dire and she gave us a loonie, and that was just probably the best donation we got that day in terms of meaning," Dunn told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"It tells the greater story that we're going to dig in and help each other through these tough times."

WATCH | Here's what to expect at the grocery store in 2023: 

Food prices will continue to rise in 2023: report

2 months ago
Duration 1:56
The financial pain from high food prices isn’t expected to go away for a while, a new report from Dalhousie University suggests. That’s bad news for some families who say they don’t see what else they could cut from their grocery bills.

Food prices increased by 10.1 per cent in the year up to October, a small decrease from the rate recorded in September, but still ahead of Canada's overall inflation rate of 6.9 per cent. On Monday, the 2023 Food Price Report predicted that a typical family of four could be paying an extra $1,000 for groceries next year, bringing a total annual bill of over $16,000.

Those increases have only exacerbated food insecurity across Canada, which in 2021 affected 5.8 million Canadians, including 1.4 million children.

Food insecurity is nothing new, but has been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change's impact on agriculture and global conflicts such as Russia's invasion of Ukraine, said researcher Gisèle Yasmeen. 

"The real critical thing is to think about this as a question of poverty and inequality, that is now being sharpened and made worse by the current situation," said Yasmeen, a senior fellow who researches food insecurity at the University of British Columbia's School of Public Policy and Global Affairs. 

That means not just focusing on food prices, but also issues like wages, housing and the wider cost of living.

Holly Thompson, director of communications at Scott Mission in Toronto, says her organization is seeing an almost 50 per cent more visitors seeking a hot meal. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

Dunn said that his organization served almost 800 people last month, which is "significantly higher" than normal. Some visitors were once donors to his organization, and are now relying on it to make ends meet.

Many are seniors whose pensions just aren't covering as much as they used to, he said.

Dunn said the charity is able to offer food and basic necessities like toiletries, allowing people to save money for things like medication or rent. 

Valuing every dollar

Dunn said the chefs at Souls Harbour Rescue Mission are trying to be creative in order to make every donated dollar feed and support as many people as possible.

"Instead of maybe a turkey dinner, maybe we turn it into a turkey pasta … something that you can just stretch and feed more people with," he said.

"We're not government funded, and so every dollar that comes in is just valued."

WATCH | Windsor residents talk about the rise in food bank usage: 

Windsor residents talk about the rise food bank usage

3 months ago
Duration 1:15
Windsor residents talk about why the use of food banks has never been higher and what the implications are of rising inflation and other causes of increased food bank reliance.

Other charities in Canada are reporting similar challenges. At the Scott Mission in Toronto, the team recently received a call from a long-running donor.

"[He] would usually give $50 each year at Christmas," said Holly Thompson, the mission's director of communications.

"This year he called to ask us to pray for him because he can't send in a gift … he's on a fixed income and can't afford to buy groceries himself."

Brian Alexander Weir lives on disability support, which only leaves him a couple hundred dollars a month to live on. He relies on the Scott Mission for daily meals, and accesses the food bank twice a month.

"For me, this is absolutely a saviour, a good place for me," he said.

Thompson said the mission is seeing almost 50 per cent more visitors seeking a hot meal, some of whom are embarrassed to be asking for help for the first time.

"The ability to access food should be universal, but that's how people feel, is that they're coming to the food bank and they're being humbled," she said.

"Our worry is being able to have enough cash flow to provide the meals and the groceries as we would like to — the need is huge across the city."

WATCH | The first food banks in B.C. opened in 1982: 

The first food banks in B.C. opened in 1982

6 years ago
Duration 0:28
The banks were run out of churches and relied on volunteer donations of time and resources.

Food banks a 'Band-Aid solution'

Food banks started in Canada 40 years ago as a response to recession, but they were always meant to be a temporary "Band-Aid solution," Yasmeen said.

"If we don't get to the root of the issue, and we still go back to this idea that somehow charity is going to solve this conundrum, we're dreaming in technicolour," she said.

She said that most leaders who run food banks and hot meal programs would agree.

"They want to put themselves out of business, [they] want to see social and economic policies change so that … individuals and households don't have to rely on the charitable sector," she said.

All levels of government should work together to create economic and social policies that actively seek to reduce poverty, she said.

"We have to think of temporary approaches and temporary supports, but not lose sight, not lose the eyes on the prize of the structural changes that are needed."

Audio produced by Joana Draghici, Meli Gumus, Enza Uda and Shyloe Fagan

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