Startling to think about it this way, but Toronto’s poor and low-waged are in the strange position of being punished for Christianity’s waning popularity.
That’s because it’s increasingly apparent that while the city has traditionally relied on churches to run food banks, those houses of the spirit are demonstrating that they lack the corporal wherewithal to do the job.
It’s a serious matter, because between April 2007 and March 08, food banks scored 799,315 visits. According to Who’s Hungry, a report recently released by the Daily Bread Food Bank, it’s likely that a quarter of users go without food for at least one day every month.
Their average wage is just over $10 an hour, well above both the legal minimum and welfare rates.
Food bank use has increased steadily for eight years – just as the capacity of individual food banks is waning.
In the downtown core, most of the need for feed has been met by religious organizations, mainly churches: places like St. Francis’ Table and the Parkdale Community Food Bank (formerly St. Philip’s Pantry) in the west, and St. Peters, St. Paul’s, All Saints and St. Bartholomew’s, where Wendy Underwood volunteers, in the east.
“The east has the highest concentration of food banks in the country,” says Underwood, who volunteers at St. Bartholomew’s on Dundas. “Our main concern here is human resources. It’s a highly labour-intensive job, and none of us are getting any younger.”
Nearby St. Peter’s Church, on Carlton, which runs the second-largest food bank in the city, is even worse off. While no one there wants to speak on record, it’s well known that the church has lost the ability to run its food bank.
Daily Bread will take over for three months, after which a new location and host organization will need to be found. In the meantime, the bank will now be closed half the week – and a sign is taped to the side door.
It announces that those looking for food now need to be able to prove where they live. When resources are scarce, bureaucracy always flourishes.
“It’s a new venture for us in the last few years, having to go out and ask agencies or churches if they’d be willing to run such a program,” says Daily Bread’s Maureen Tracey, who’s overseeing the transition at St. Peter’s.
Traditionally, Daily Bread has only solicited and distributed food donations, but lately it’s stepped in to prevent closures. “Right now I have staff who are operating three food banks.” Daily Bread coordinator Gail Nyberg says the organization has started diverting more resources to actually purchasing food to make up for declining donations. At the same time, prices are rising.
“This fall we will feel that dramatic increase. Not only are food prices rising, but people are charging more for deliveries,” she says. “I certainly see in the future a time when the hampers may be less full.”
For now, though, it’s not the food supply but the ability to distribute it that’s in more danger. The story at St. Peter’s is known to many area churches, which just happen to be at different stages in the narrative.
No one’s eager to talk to the press, but one church member, when asked why there’s such an endemic problem, suggests it’s simply that church membership has been declining for years. (“Ed Sullivan killed Sunday-night prayer,” I’m told wryly.)
Donations are slowing, flocks are aging and dying, and few people are coming in to replace them. Most of those who are are long-time food bank users themselves, lacking the skills to fill administrative gaps.
“We were really lucky to find a parishioner willing to take on coordinating the food bank,” says Underwood.
Robert Thorpe, coordinator at the newly revisioned (and Daily Bread-involved) Parkdale Community Food Bank, reflects on this change. “I think the food bank made the mistake of relying on a small circle of funders, all church organizations,” he says. “We’re striving now to diversify our funding.”
As the economy deteriorates and unemployment and temp work increase, this becomes a matter of concern for all. “It’s a double whammy for food banks,” says Thorpe. “Food donors are working people. But when those people lose their jobs, they show up at our door.”