Banking on Food Banks?

Does anyone go shopping for groceries these days without having at least one conversation with another shopper about the rising cost of what we are putting in our carts? Assuming, that is, we are among those who can continue to purchase the same items we have been using for years. Although the subtle anxiety is always there these days: when will something I really need cost too much for me to purchase? Or when will it no longer even be available?

Of course, for many, that moment has long since arrived. Lori Nikkel, CEO of Second Harvest, Canada’s largest food rescue organization, wrote something in a recent Globe and Mail opinion piece that shocked me:

Food charities outnumber grocery stores in Canada four to one.

She elaborates:

For every Loblaws, Metro, Safeway or Northern grocery store in your community, there are four churches, temples, mosques, senior centres, schools or social programs providing food for people who may not have the means to buy it.

Nikkel quotes a recent report from Second Harvest, “Canada’s Invisible Food Network,” which found that the $33 billion worth of food these organizations distributed last year would “make them the second-largest grocery store chain in Canada, having served about 6.7 million Canadians.”

She also cites a Statistics Canada report that found that in 2019, “an estimated 1.2 million households” in Canada were living with food insecurity, a number that increased to one in seven families during the COVID pandemic in 2020. Second Harvest defines food insecurity as:

…a lack of regular access to enough safe, nutritious food to meet a person’s dietary needs. It is associated with poor diet quality and basic hunger that leads to physical and mental health problems, as well as lower educational outcomes.

(And here, I should make note of many schools in our neck of the woods that offer breakfast and/or lunch programs, which are a great way for students to get a certain sense of food security.)


Second Harvest discovered more than 61,000 charitable groups providing food to hungry Canadians but said that, in spite of these generous souls giving of their time and effort and often, money, “there is more demand for food.” And yet, most of us think nothing of throwing away leftovers, rather than making a second meal of them. Nor do enough of us consider offering suitable items in our pantry, fridges or cupboards to a food bank when we know our family won’t eat them, no matter how we dress them up. Having food picked up at your door by food bank volunteers seems to be a thing of the past and I suspect that often the items offered were out of date — foodstuffs that had been forgotten at the back of the cupboard.

As far back as its Hunger Count2016 report, Food Banks Canada found a rise in food bank use across the country — including a 20.9% surge in Nova Scotia and a 24.9% spike in the territories. By 2019, food bank visits nationally had plateaued, as had overall visits in Nova Scotia, but 53.9% of this province’s 123 reporting food banks reported an increase in visits between 2018 and 2019. (HungerCount2021 is due out tomorrow, October 28th).

Among the most alarming revelations in Nikkel’s article was that “more than half of the food we produce ends up in landfill.” Many condemn Big Box stores, in no uncertain terms, for the amount of food they throw out daily, often days or even weeks before their “best before” dates. An investigation by CBC’s Marketplace discovered bins loaded with such items outside a Walmart in Toronto. But other stores also dispose of food they no longer consider saleable, although food banks with the wherewithal to do so have begun to truck these items to their facilities rather than see them go to landfill.


Closer to home, Feed Nova Scotia assists 140 food banks, shelters and meal programs in the province, 16 here in Cape Breton. There is no doubt that food banks have been hard hit by COVID and with the highest increase in food prices in years now upon us, things will only get worse. The rising price of gas, one assumes, will also affect deliveries of food items to food banks, and could also be a problem for services like Meals On Wheels which depends, as do most programs dealing with food insecurity, on the generosity of volunteers. Surely, the provincial government should set up a system that reimburses these volunteers for at least a portion of the money they spend on gas?

We are already seeing warnings that stores could be facing long waits for their Christmas stock, and shoppers (those who can afford it obviously) are rushing to purchase whatever is available now to make the holidays wonderful for their children.

Donations to Glace Bay Food Bank

Food donations to the Glace Bay Food Bank, 2019. (Source: Facebook)

Many COVID-related government assistance programs ended as of Saturday and the replacement announced for those who don’t qualify for EI benefits, the Canada Worker Lockdown Benefit, will pay only $300 per week until May.

Little wonder, then, that Food Bank Canada recommends creating a national basic income to curb the “unacceptably high” reliance on food banks.  Given the amounts of money that government has already spent during the pandemic, a basic income would be a wonderful idea (and, of course, something I have been promoting for years) Although many banks and business leaders seem to expect the economy to escape the present grip of high inflation, that means little to those subsisting on social assistance payments that might cover rent but leave little for anything else — particularly, food! In 2020, announcing extra funding for food banks, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said it was “unacceptable” that more than one-third of the people relying on food banks in Canada are children — and so it is in a country like ours.

But is it “unacceptable” enough to move the government to take action on a guaranteed income?



Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.