Even in two of the world’s wealthiest nations, the US and Canada, hunger is a harsh reality for many families and individuals, especially as the holiday season approaches. Even during times of prosperity, when school lunches are served to children and parents are working, millions still rely on food banks as a primary or secondary source of food.
But with illness, unemployment and debt at an all time high as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions more are worrying about food security — some for the first time ever. US and Canadian food banks have been rapidly distributing food to those in need at a much higher rate than last year. But even with help from food banks and neighborhood food pantries, some people are still skipping meals so their children can eat or relying on cheap, less-nutritious foods.
This is not the first time both nations have experienced struggles with hunger. In the 1920s and 1930s, mass unemployment as a result of the Great Depression forced millions into poverty, most of whom experienced hunger. Depression-era photos of men in long coats and fedoras standing in breadlines eerily resemble the portraits of hunger today.
In the US, drone-captured footage of cars waiting in mile-long lines, anxiously awaiting boxes of food for their families, has unfortunately become the new normal. And in larger cities like New York, where waiting in cars isn’t an option, those in need are forced to wait outside for blocks to secure food, in many cases in cold weather.
Back in March, when layoffs began and paycheques shrunk, food banks felt the pressure almost immediately. America’s largest anti-hunger organization, Feeding America, raced to secure enough food as lockdowns began and schools closed. By late March, nearly 40 of the organization’s 200 food banks were at risk of running out of food. And in Canada, Food Banks Canada served 1.1 million people a month even before the pandemic, with many food banks operating at capacity.
The issue of supply was two-fold: the food supply chain experienced serious delays at the beginning of the pandemic and there were fewer donations to food banks. But while the supply issue has subsided, the demand has remained high. Feeding America saw a 60 percent increase in those visiting food banks during the pandemic, with four in ten being first time users. Meanwhile, a report by Food Banks Canada found that 87 percent of food banks with heightened demand attributed it to job losses, with single person households hit the hardest.
Feeding America and Food Banks Canada are calling for more government assistance in the form of food stamps and minimum basic income. In both countries, high cost of living is one of the main reasons people visit food banks, even in cases where annual incomes are above $50,000. While food banks and community food pantries are doing great work, the magnitude of those in need outpaces their capabilities.
With a COVID-19 vaccine approval around the corner, there may be some relief in the coming months, but many will still rely on food banks for the time being. This holiday season, food banks are sending out urgent appeals for help during this challenging time.
Many individuals and companies are answering that call by getting creative with donations. Amid the pandemic, many annual Christmas parties are being cancelled and funds that are generally allocated towards them are being donated to Food Banks Canada through the Donate My Office Party campaign. To support food security and put unused holiday party funds to good use, click here to donate to Food Banks Canada.