AND YOU CAN TAKE THIS TO THE BANK: The Current State of Toronto Food Banks

By Janis Warren

They stopped giving out numbers past 100 a while ago. I found this out the hard way as I walked down King Street, only to be greeted by angry stares as opposed to food-filled boxes and buggies. I was number 86 literally and metaphorically… ‘eighty-sixed’ meaning cast out short of due. By the time I reached the front of the line, I had been yelled at, panhandled off of, and also offered a bicycle, a pair of suede cowboy boots, and an electric guitar – all from different people and all for the low, low price of a ten piece. I had heard that the dealers were now willing to do three dollars-worth of crack chops (going into an enclosed area and eyeing the product out as opposed to weighing it prior to sale) as well, but I imagine with the luxury items these folks had, they dreamt of selling the goods for a chunk the size of their thumbnail to go with it. Some dealers would trade for goods and services, but most preferred the cash, judging only by the lack of young criminals wearing cowboy boots in these here parts.

My number was eventually called. I could see that the first two shelves that stocked food were now empty, and the freezer containing any kind of meat or dairy option had already been locked up. As I only qualified for a can of beans, a loaf of bread and three flaccid carrots, they decided to make up for the glaring absence of weekly staples with chocolate bars. I had a good attitude and was well spoken, so I was rewarded with thirty one Reese Peanut Butter Cups. Good thing it was Easter.

There are 47 food banks in the Downtown core of Toronto, three for each catchment area of around five square km in every direction. The funding for this year’s food bank is via Daily Bread , which distributes the largesse, and it is currently short around a half million dollars from the projected needs of 2014/2015. It is in such a state of despair that the CBC head offices have started promoting donations that they’ll collect and re-distribute to Daily Bread themselves. Because of these constraints, proof of income and residence are quite necessary if you plan on eating more than once a month. Your local food bank needs to know that you live nearby and financially qualify, although every food bank will let you go through without proper intake once in emergency circumstances.

This means that if you are homeless or have a minimum wage job, you have to either keep shuttling to a different food bank every week or, in the case of full time work, doctor your income in accordance with the food bank cut off; a maximum of $925 monthly income. The lowest rent in my part of the city being $600 for a bachelor means that if you have kids it is best to just… well, let’s hope everyone in this situation works in a restaurant and has a large bag.

That being said, if you have a 9 to 5 job on the regular 40 hour work week, you really only have one food bank that operates outside of your work schedule. They all operate on a central database, so once you are properly registered with one, you will not be able to solicit another one within the city that week. The food allotment is supposed to last for three days. The last time I checked though, a calendar week was seven. If you do your grocery shopping carefully there are other supports that help, the largest one being The Good Food Box which costs $25 every 2 weeks. The box contains tightly packed produce and will happily be delivered to your door or nearest community resource centre, in the event that you are not the proud owner of a door and the attached accommodation.

Most people that know the food bank will be a large part of their fate’s tapestry will try to get first call on food by volunteering. The majority of the downtown food banks have private donations from nearby restaurants and grocery stores to add to the already meagerly stocked shelves and if there are only three bricks of cheese, or some prepared lasagna, the volunteers are going to get to it first. As a result, landing a volunteer position with the food bank is a little like winning American Idol. The last time I went there, two people did my intake, one person called my number, three people gave me my packet of wieners, another person gave me my half dozen eggs, then another gave me my box of macaroni and cheese, and finally one more gave me my loaf of bread.

With all this noted, it must be said that Toronto’s current financial state might be a limiter on progress here, but they are not short on inventive people. New programs that target those who cannot live off of the food bank alone are in the works or out there already, the most popular of these being The Street Health Outreach Bus that drives bag lunches, hot breakfasts, and pizza into priority areas. Hunger works on a tight time frame that is nothing shy of unforgiving, but with Toronto working towards a resolution with one hand tied behind its back, we are needed to contribute and bring about a solution as a population whole.

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