Food banks back farmers

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The farm community, employers and employees alike, needs to be fully engaged for the sake of Canada’s food security, according to the organizations representing food banks.

As the coronavirus crisis was deepening, the CEO of Food Banks Canada, Chris Hatch, and executive director of Feed Ontario, Carolyn Stewart, spoke with Ontario Farmer on March 25.

They expressed appreciation for past generosity – farmers have long supported food banks – and commented on a pressing concern as the growing season proceeds. Having a sufficient workforce in place is of crucial importance, they said.

“Anything that affects the food system is something we pay attention to,” Stewart said.

“The growing season is pretty well upon us. The asparagus is coming on, in April, May. All these things are interconnected. If migrant workers cannot enter Canada, there will be a labour shortage. … I think everyone that contributes to the food system in Canada is important.”

There have been conflicting reports concerning the migrant worker situation. On March 16, farm leaders were told by the federal government the border was closed to the workers. Subsequent reports from the federal government indicated that temporary agricultural workers are to be brought in but according to the president of the Foreign Agriculture Resource Management Service, Ken Forth, nothing has been finalized.

Stewart had a suggestion of how to resolve the matter. “I would defer to the opinion of the farmers who actually use that labour force,” she said.

Hatch promised to raise the concern over the migrant workforce with his federal government contacts.

Food banks have also been gearing up to meet what they suspect will be a growing demand for the service. In February, there were about 1.1 million visits to food banks and other distribution points like soup kitchens with 750,000 individuals being served, about a third of which are children.

The need is expected to increase.

“We’re expecting a surge in demand at the food banks with all the closures and layoffs Hatch said. “The demand will be going up. I expect it will go up quickly … It was a 28 per cent increase with the last recession in 2008. I think this could even be worse.”

Hatch and Stewart said the food banks are facing additional challenges in light of the coronavirus situation.

Some of the paid staff haven’t been able to come to work and volunteers, many of them seniors, are staying at home. Food stores are in decline – promoting the $150 special appeal to Canadians – and food banks have been adjusting their services, moving to systems that allow food to be distributed while limiting contact among staff, volunteers and clients.

To learn more about the appeal and to donate, Hatch suggested Canadians visit the Food Banks Canada website at  www.foodbankscanada.ca.

In Chatham, the executive director with Outreach for Hunger, Brenda LeClair spoke from her home where she’s in self-quarantine, having recently returned from Florida.

“Last week our board made a decision to close for a few days … Today is our first day back open; it’s a test day.”

LeClair said that even though staffing is short, food supplies are being pre-packed and distributed in a manner that limits contact between individuals. She said other food banks have remained open but some services supplying meals have closed their doors while others have been preparing bagged lunches.

LeClair also encouraged people to check with their neighbours, especially if they’re elderly or disabled.

“Just knock on their door – you don’t need to go in – and ask if they need anything. If we stick together, we’ll come out on top of this thing.”

Concerning specific food needs, LeClair there’s a demand for protein foods, things like peanut butter and canned fish, along with fresh fruit and vegetables. However, any appropriate food stuffs are welcome.

“If you need it, we need it,” she said.

Hatch said most food banks are still open in Canada, although hours have been shortened in some cases. His organization represents about 5,000 food banks and food programs across Canada.

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