Montreal

Growing crowds at Montreal food bank expose deeper food insecurity gaps than groups can meet, advocates say

Police were called to maintain order at a Parc-Extension food bank giveaway as the number of people coming for food nearly doubles.

Food banks are 'a way for politicians to skirt the deeper issues,' Food Secure Canada says

A long line of people in winter clothing wait outside to get into the Cuisines et vie collectives Saint-Roch food bank.
The Cuisines et vie collectives Saint-Roch food bank usually has enough stock to feed around 180 families each week. Lately, organizers say the lineup has been swelling well beyond the number of people they can feed. (Cuisines et vie collectives Saint-Roch/Facebook)

A crowd gathered in front of the Parc-Extension food bank last month, waiting to get a bite to eat — hundreds more people lined up than expected. On one of the distribution days, some pushed their way toward the doors, trying to get served first.  

The food bank called 911 to get the situation under control, and the following week officers were on site for the next giveaway. 

Each week, Cuisines et vie collectives Saint-Roch, a community kitchen that also operates as a food bank, normally hands out food baskets to around 180 families. 

But on two Mondays in February, an estimated 400 showed up, many who were not registered to receive food, nearly double the number of people the food bank can feed.

Now, the food bank will no longer distribute extra food to non-members at giveaways and it's pausing new memberships for the next two months.

As part of its 2024 budget, Quebec announced $30 million in funding for the province's food banks — the amount the Food Banks of Quebec asked for. The organization's philanthropy director, Véronique Beaulieu-Fowler, welcomed the announcement, saying the boost will make planning food purchases and deliveries easier as demand continues to climb.

But some food security experts say food banks, whether or not they get more funding, are unable to resolve the problem of more and more Canadians —  in Parc-Extension or elsewhere — struggling to put enough food in their stomachs. 

People stand in line outside.
The food bank called police to a food basket giveaway last month to help them manage the growing line of people. (Cuisines et vie collectives Saint-Roch/Facebook )

Gloria Fernandez, the director of Cuisines et vie collectives Saint-Roch, is one of those people. She says food banks are a "Band-Aid" solution that "doesn't solve the problem at its root."

"We're getting a Band-Aid right now with food bank money, but how long will it last?"

The core of the issue is poverty, she says, with mothers showing up unable to feed their children.

"The government accepts new immigrants and we try to help them in community organizations, but it takes a long time to get a work permit, it takes a long time to get welfare, and people are starving," said Fernandez.

"It's not possible that Canada is a rich country and we have this problem feeding people," she said. 

According to a Food Banks Quebec report published in October, the organization, which provides food to food banks across the province, had an unprecedented average of 2.6 million requests each month in 2023. 

The number of food baskets donated each month also doubled in four years, from 345,000 in 2019 to 682,000 in 2023. 

Over the past year, 71 per cent of the food banks the organization supplies ran out of food.

A man stands outisde.
Wade Thorhaug, executive director at Food Secure Canada, says he doesn't think food banks should exist. (Angela Hill/CBC)

Should food banks exist? 

Wade Thorhaug, executive director at Food Secure Canada, says food bank managers are trapped in a system of trying but failing to meet community needs. 

According to Thorhaug, food banks have represented the failure of public policy in making sure Canadians are well fed since they first started to sprout in the 1980s.

Food banks, he says, shouldn't exist. 

"It's a way for politicians to skirt the deeper issues. Every year, we see them roll up their sleeves and participate in boxing or distributing food in food banks, particularly around the holiday season and that's more of a public relations move than anything," he said.

"It costs way less in terms of money and political capital to set aside some public funds towards food bank distribution than it does to tackle the bigger issue of income distribution and affordability in the country," said Thorhaug.

"For 40 years we've been propping up this system that really doesn't serve any other purpose than to dump the responsibility of income equity and affordability onto the public and nonprofit groups and all of these organizations that are struggling to meet a need that they cannot hope to fill," he said.

An elderly woman with glasses looks ahead smiling.
Valerie Tarasuk, lead investigator of PROOF, a research program looking into food insecurity in Canada, says no matter how much Quebec spends on food banks, it won't solve the problem of food insecurity. (Submitted by University of Toronto)

Charity won't solve the problem: Food security researcher

Valerie Tarasuk, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto and lead investigator of PROOF, a research program looking into food insecurity in Canada, says Quebec's $30 million dedicated to food banks is  "worrisome."

Boosting those funds does not and cannot address the root causes, even if Quebec decides to spend big on food banks going forward, Tarasuk says.

According to a PROOF report last November, 13.8 per cent of Quebec households were food insecure in 2022, up from 13.1 per cent the year before, but that number climbs to 21.3 per cent for children in the province.

While that number is the lowest in Canada, it amounts to 1.2 million people. Of Quebec's total number, over half were families reliant on employment income for food and making ends meet.

Although Quebec has fared better than other parts of the country thanks to social programs, Quebec's decision to spend big on food banks will "sustain and perpetuate" a failed policy. 

"Putting more money in that system doesn't make the system more effective. It feeds the beast," she said, adding that money may mean bigger and more plentiful food banks but not a decrease in demand for them.

"If all you're doing is putting the food banks, you're never going to turn off the tap in terms of the things that are driving people to have to seek food aid from a public charity."

The people who are most food insecure are people living on limited incomes, social assistance and low-wage employment, says Tarasuk, and what they need are stronger income supports so that they can cover the rising cost of not only food but rent and inflation.

LISTEN | Leading experts weigh in on the root causes of food insecurity: 


The cost of food is on the rise, and more Canadians are having a hard time knowing if they can afford their next meal. IDEAS hears from four leading experts in the field of food insecurity to explore the root causes and how our food systems can evolve to support us all.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joe Bongiorno

Journalist

Joe Bongiorno is a journalist, author and former high school teacher. He has reported for CBC, Canadian Geographic, Maisonneuve, Canada’s National Observer and others. He is currently a reporter with The Canadian Press.

With files from Matt D'Amours and Radio-Canada