Better Victoria meals banks pressure to satisfy rising want as price of dwelling soars

Cash donations can double or triple impact, organizations say

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Food banks across Greater Victoria are seeing the demand soar, but donations are not keeping up. Photo: Saanich Peninsula Food Bank / provided

When she leaves the Mustard Seed Street Church & Food Bank for her lunch break, Colleen Sparks, the organization’s director of development, walks past the everyday lineup of people waiting to pick up grocery hampers.

The line is often long, and the people in it range from young to old, from new Canadians to life-long locals. Every day, the non-profit serves families, students and seniors, people without homes and people with homes, people with jobs and people without.

The crisis of affordability, Sparks said, does not discriminate.

“I think it’s just a combination of inflation and housing costs,” she said. “Last week, I know there was a family man that came in, and he was really exploring his options, because he didn’t need to use the food bank yet. But he was worried. He was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to pay his mortgage and feed his children.”

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Since she joined the organization in September, Sparks has already watched the community need grow. This season has seen a 25% uptick in clients from the same time period last year, she said, estimating the food bank is serving between five and 10 new individuals or families every single day.

It’s a similar story at the Saanich Peninsula Lions Food Bank, where demand has been on an upward curve since at least the summer.

“There is, all around, more need,” said Tyson Elder, the Peninsula charity’s operations manager. “Since the summer we’ve seen exponential growth in the number of people accessing our services. A lot of it has to do with inflation and all the other rising costs [such as] rent

“There’s a lot of families. Mom and dad are working a few jobs, putting the kids through soccer and what have you, and they just can’t keep up with food and rent payments.”

At the Rainbow Kitchen, at least one new face appears everyday, said Patrick Johnstone, executive director of the family-friendly, Esquimalt-based soup kitchen and community hub.

“It’s unsustainable, it’s tough,” he said. “It’s daunting when you see the need grow so much.”

All three organizations point to inflation and housing costs, exacerbated by the impacts of COVID-19. Earlier this month, Capital Daily reported on the rising cost of living in the region, which jumped roughly 20% in the past year.

The expensive and meager state of housing in the region earned it a failing grade in the Victoria Foundation’s Vital Signs report this year, with 44% of respondents calling for more affordable housing and rental options. For many, a monthly choice has to be made between rent and groceries.

Johnstone said that two years ago, 10,000 meals served in December—the Rainbow Kitchen’s busiest month—would have been record-breaking. The organization served 17,000 meals this October.

“The need started rising during COVID and it just keeps going up, but the finances and the donations stayed consistent,” Johnstone said. “What we get over November and December has to sustain us until the summer.”

It’s a point made by many non-profit food programs. During the holidays, food security organizations get an influx of donations, but the generosity tapers out in the new year. That means stretching seasonal donations throughout the remaining seasons.

“Summer vacations are a very expensive time for families,” Sparks said. “And a lot of people just aren’t thinking about it, because they’re planning their own summer vacations… We really do need monthly donors to help sustain our operations year round.”

All of the food programs list hygiene products, canned meat, and lunch box snacks among their highest-need items, and although food donations are always encouraged, monetary contributions can double, if not triple a donor’s impact.

“For every dollar, we can get $2 or $3,” Elder said. At the moment, the Saanich Peninsula Lions Food Bank has a lot of pasta noodles, but not a lot of pasta sauce, he added. With cash, the charity can purchase exactly what it needs, plus it gives clients the ability to shop and choose what they want.

That’s something the Mustard Seed strives for.

“When you’re hungry you’ll take anything,” she said. “We like to give people the dignity of choice. When they come to the food bank, they get to choose what they want.”

“We’re so grateful for the food donations,” she added. “We just have such greater buying power with cash. We can buy so much more food.”

The Rainbow Kitchen benefits hugely from monetary donations of all sizes, Johnstone said, pointing to a $5 donation he records monthly.

“Someone might think, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s just five bucks’…but you gave somebody a meal with that donation,” he said. “You’re giving what you have and you’re helping. I smile every time I see that.”

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