Toronto food banks face empty shelves amid record demand, advocates warn

Fort York Food Bank's executive director faced a problem this past weekend that's increasingly familiar across the city. Record numbers of clients and shortages of staples left the shelves so bare, she was worried she wouldn't be able to reopen Tuesday.

Fort York Food Bank still lacks staples to serve all clients, despite community donations

Julie LeJeune, Fort York Food Bank's executive director, and Jonathan Patterson, a long-time volunteer, stand in front of the food bank on College Street. (Darek Zdzienicki/CBC)

When Julie LeJeune came into Fort York Food Bank on Sunday to take stock of its supplies, the executive director realized she had a crisis on her hands. 

About 450 people came in Saturday alone, she says, leaving the food bank, which is closed Mondays, without enough staples to reopen on Tuesday.

"We don't have anything to put on our shelves,"  said LeJeune.

"I have not seen us be completely out of staples like this."

Thanks to a desperate plea for donations and a huge response from the community, the food bank now has enough supplies to open its doors at College Street west of Bathurst Street as usual Tuesday. But it doesn't have enough to serve the number of clients staff expect to show up.

LeJeune isn't the only one seeing an unprecedented increase in users. There are now 160,000 client visits per month across the city, according to the Daily Bread Food Bank, up from 60,000 two years ago. Food banks saw 5,700 new clients last month — a record, Daily Bread says. Advocates say increased donations aren't matching the need due to rising grocery costs and continued challenges like a lack of affordable housing and low rates for social services like the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP).

LeJeune says the food bank has seen many new users recently. (Darek Zdzienicki/CBC)

While this week's crisis was acute, it's not an isolated problem, says LeJeune.

The Fort York Food Bank has had milk, potatoes and several other items, but canned tuna, rice, pasta, beans and canned vegetables — food bank staples with a long shelf life — were down to almost nothing, she says.

Too often lately, staff have had to give clients one can of a protein-rich food like tuna, when they would have hoped to give two, she says, but this shortage was unprecedented and the timing couldn't have been worse.

"Tomorrow's a special day. We're reopening for the first time in two years to have clients come back inside," she told CBC News on Monday.

The Fort York Food Bank recently ran out of staples like canned tuna, rice, pasta, pasta sauce, beans and canned vegetables, leading to a plea for emergency food donations before the food bank re-opens Tuesday. (Darek Zdzienicki/CBC)

Since the pandemic began, the food bank was only providing people in need with ready-made bags, a decision that meant clients couldn't pick items they might prefer, something that wasn't ideal, she says.

Not sure what to do, she began to tweet about the food bank's needs and emailed Coun. Mike Layton, who represents the ward where the food bank is located, to spread the word.

Community members who had seen the tweets began arriving on foot, by bike and car on Monday with items on LeJeune's list. But even as the donations arrived throughout the day, at the other door, clients who had not realized the food bank was closed came by, hoping for anything at all to tide their households over. 

"Our numbers are going up every day. We register new clients daily," LeJeune said.

And while the food bank is grateful for the support it received Monday, heading into the summer, it traditionally struggles, she says, adding donations can be dropped off most mornings, including Tuesday.

Challenges for food banks across the city

Given the increase in users during the pandemic, the Daily Bread Food Bank, which serves 170 food banks and food programs, has had to almost triple the amount it's distributing, its CEO says.

Food banks like Fort York Food Bank get some of their food from Daily Bread Food Bank and some from direct community donations, which can come in the form of food or cash, says Neil Hetherington.

Food banks often purchase supplies at least a month in advance based on user estimates, Hetherington says. But he adds they must purchase much more to make up for the shortfall created by a record number of users and have also been hit with rising costs and supply chain challenges. 

Food banks have been hit with rising costs and supply chain challenges on top of record demand. The Fort York Food Bank found itself with almost no staples left on Sunday. (Clara Pasieka/CBC)

"Most of the people that we serve on fixed income are underwater every single month," he said, but "more and more, we're seeing individuals who never used to come to a food bank."

Despite the challenges, he wants everyone in need to visit and feel assured they will be provided with enough food.

'We want action'

"We know the causes of why there are more people coming to food banks," said Hetherington.

It comes from a lack of affordable housing, people needing two or three jobs to make ends meet and payments social programs like ODSP being too low, he says.

He says the Daily Bread Food Bank wants to see all candidates talk about these issues  in the upcoming Ontario election. But the fact that people are talking about food insecurity and affordable housing as much as they are right now is giving him hope, he adds.

Layton, who dropped off a bag of staples Monday at Fort York Food Bank, echoes Hetherington's sentiments..

The city councillor says the provincial election provides an opportunity to raise the volume on these concerns.

"There are real fixes to the systemic problems here. Most of them start at the provincial level," Layton told CBC News. 

"And we need to make sure that the candidates running for office understand that we want action."


Clara Pasieka is a CBC journalist in Toronto. She has also worked in CBC's national bureau and as a reporter in the Northwest Territories, Ontario and New Brunswick. Her investigative work following the Nova Scotia Mass Shooting was a finalist for a CAJ Award. She holds a Masters degree in Public Policy, Law and Public Administration from York University.