Food banks coping with surge in customers amid massive job losses

Every Thursday, Pastor Jim Parker and his family turn the entrance of Bethany Baptist Church into a food bank.

Before the outbreak, their clients could enter the church and get their meals inside. But since safety measures now require social distance, they line-up outside on the street along Cosburn Avenue, waiting for the food bank to open at 1:15 p.m.

Since COVID-19 swept the country, Parker noticed the number of clients has almost tripled, as many community residents lost their income.

“We really wanted to keep the food bank going,” he said. “We knew people in our community would need the food bank more than they ever have.”

Bethany Baptist Church, which opened its food bank in 2013, used to provide food for about 175 customers a week. Now that number has grown to almost 450.

Other food banks across town have also seen an increase in the number of customers since thousands of people got laid off.

This image displays a regular queue at food banks.
LONG LINE: People stand in line in compliance with social distance, waiting to get served at the Bethany Baptist Church Food Bank.

Devi Arasanayagam, co-founder of Fort York Food Bank on College Street, said they expect to see a surge of clients shortly.

“I’m already seeing people who had been off the food bank system for the last two, three years because they have found jobs,” she said. “Unfortunately, they had to come back.”

Arasanayagam said the food bank is also getting new clients that have never used their services before.

“Two weeks ago, this young man who worked in construction said he was really hungry because he lost his job. He finally had to decide to visit the food bank.”

Margarette Leandre, a community ministries coordinator at The Salvation Army East Toronto, said their food bank on Cedarvale Avenue has experienced a small growth in new members.

She said that more people are coming to that location as many food banks in the area got shut down.

“We’re one of the few that’s open right now,” she said. “[That’s why] we’ve had more individuals coming to our location.”

They were able to coordinate with their charity distributors to give out more food than they usually do due to the negative consequences of COVID-19.

New rules

To maintain safe and practical service, Toronto food banks have had to adapt to new rules during the pandemic.

When Bethany Baptist Church receives personal donations, volunteers adopt a procedure to ensure the items don’t contain COVID-19.

“We put any food donations into a separate quarantine area, and no one touches them for at least three days,” Parker said.

Food banks usually offer food to cover at least three days. However, unprecedented times have made some of them give out more than they normally do.

Arasanayagam said Fort York Food Bank provides enough food to last at least a week.

“In this way, they have to leave their homes less often, which keeps them healthy,” she said.

In addition to non-perishable products, they supplement them with fresh items that have the necessary nutrients, Arasanayagam said. “Just because people are low-income doesn’t mean they shouldn’t get nutritious food.”

Fort York Food Bank volunteers sort food items into boxes.
READY: Volunteers at Fort York Food Bank prepare groceries enough for one week to distribute to their clients.

They get plenty of food from the Daily Bread Food Bank and Second Harvest, the primary food suppliers at Fort York Food Bank, which is fortunate as they have had to cancel personal donations.

Holly Thompson, director of public relations at The Scott Mission on Spadina Avenue, said their food bank also stopped accepting physical donations from individuals. This precaution has been put in place to limit the risk of contracting the virus.

“Some people asked us if they could donate, but we don’t want them coming to the building unless they absolutely have to,” she said.

“It’s an unfortunate circumstance: people would love to help, but the best way to help at this point is to donate money.”

More than just delivering food

Since COVID-19 prevents many vulnerable people from leaving their households, Fort York Food Bank has also launched delivery services. They connected with the , an organization run by volunteers who deliver supplies on bikes.

“It’s more than just about delivering food,” Arasanayagam said. “It’s also about connecting and communicating with people who are self-isolated.”

Patrick, 73, who lives near Sherbourne Avenue and Dundas Street East but did not give his last name to avoid being recognized by his family, said he used to get his food delivered from a local food bank since he cannot stand for long due to his medical conditions.

He also lives in Toronto Community Housing in front of a homeless shelter, which recently experienced outbreaks of COVID-19 in the homeless population.

These circumstances made it difficult for him to go outside.

“I am very hesitant to go out, but if I have to, I always wear a mask and gloves,” he said.

But his local food bank stopped delivering groceries, as they were afraid their people could contract the virus, he said.

He visited other food banks in his area, but he could not stand in lines for a long time. Finally, he reached out to Fort York Food Bank, which offered him home delivery. Now he receives food enough for one week delivered by volunteers every Saturday.

“My goodness, they were so kind and accommodating,” he said.

This image shows one of the volunteers of Bike Brigade
HELP ON WHEELS:Co-founders of FYFB Devi Arasanayagam, left, and Ravi Sreedharan, right, reached out to Toronto Bike Brigade (a representative in the middle) to deliver food to vulnerable individuals who cannot leave their homes due to COVID-19 concerns.

Parker also said requests for delivery service have risen since Bethany Baptist Church started it three weeks ago.

“Some clients don’t want to stay in the line waiting for the food or are worried about catching the virus. That’s why we started a delivery service.”

In the first days, they made six deliveries, which rose to 36 in the week of May 4.

The Salvation Army Food Bank also launched delivery to supply food for seniors and people with disabilities.

“We found a volunteer who gave up their time to aid in delivering to seniors and anyone with disabilities on Thursdays,” Leandre said. “We understand that right now it’s hard for them to go outside.”

As a precautionary measure, food is being left on the porch of customers to avoid contact between them and volunteers.

This image displays a regular queue at food banks.
To apply for food service, clients for the Cosburn Avenue food bank need to register in advance on the food bank website prior to arrival.

To comply with social distancing practices, food banks have had to forbid their clients from coming inside.

Now volunteers prepare food packages before clients come and place the bags on the curbside upon their arrival. The amount of food depends on how many people live in one household.

The Salvation Army Food Bank provides emergency groceries on a monthly basis. Like other food banks in Toronto, it urges individuals and families to register on their website before arriving.

Some requirements eased 

Registration requires customers to provide information about their income and household. This process shows who is eligible for food services, as well as how many people the food bank can expect.

“At this time, we don’t encourage walk-ins for this purpose,” said Leandre. “But if someone does walk in, we will help them right away if we can, or just put them for the next available appointment.”

But the reality of COVID-19 provoking a spike in unemployment rates made some food banks ease their registration requirements.

Parker said they still have online registration through the Daily Bread Food Bank website.

But sometimes they receive clients who come to the food bank without prior registration. In this case, the church volunteers still provide available food, asking for the person’s date of birth and name.

This image displays what procedures have to be done before people get served at a food bank.
A volunteer at Bethany Baptist Church collects data on arriving customers at the food bank.

How we can help

Financial donations help food banks maintain their operations, especially during the COVID-19 crisis.

Since these non-profit organizations are not funded by the government and run by volunteers, some of them temporarily shut down amid coronavirus concerns.

“Many volunteers are staying away because they don’t want to get sick,” Arasanayagam said. “It’s not like we have paid staff that can come in as part of the essential service.”

This image shows a volunteer participating in the food bank operations.
Fort York Food Bank volunteers pack food in advance to safely distribute it to customers.

“We’re very dependent on volunteers themselves. That’s one of the reasons why some of the food banks have had to close down,” she added.

Arasanayagam said that the shortage of funds also prevents them from purchasing food items that they do not get.

Fresh products, such as milk, yogurt, and eggs, are very precious and rare, she said. To obtain these groceries, they made a small food fund that helps the food bank acquire missing items.

Any donations can be made through food banks’ websites.


Food banks in the wards



Toronto-St. Paul’s


Beaches-East York

Don Valley West

Don Valley East