The holiday season is months behind us, and along with the sparkling decorations, turkey basters and festive wrapping paper, we’ve also packed away the spirit of giving that seems to peak only in the month of December.

Charitable campaigns and office food drives have concluded until the jingle bells ring again. But the needs of Toronto’s hungry persist year-round and the data shows that the level of food insecurity in the city is reaching unprecedented levels.

According to the Daily Bread Food Bank’s annual Who’s Hungry report, there were over 990,970 visits to Toronto food banks in 2017 – that’s a 13 per cent increase since 2016 and a 68 per cent jump since 2008.

Studies from PROOF, a food security research group at the University of Toronto, showed that only a quarter of those considered food insecure in Canada access food banks or programs. That means these stark statistics represent just a fraction of the problem that we need to address.

Visits to food banks isn’t the only number on the rise. The average length of access has increased from 12 months in 2010 to 24 months in 2017, meaning that those in need are relying on food banks – which are supposed to be a short-term last resort – for twice as long as they used to.

“There have always been agencies, usually faith-based, that provided free meals or emergency assistance to people,” explains Valerie Tarasuk, a nutritional sciences professor at the University of Toronto and principal investigator at PROOF. “In the early 1980s, we saw a very rapid proliferation of the food bank charity model which represents the collection of very food-specific donations and the distribution of them.”

In the early 1980s, we saw a rapid proliferation of the food bank charity model

Toronto resident Heather Lee was one of many in the city affected by the financial recession in the 1980s. “I didn’t have a job and fell on hard times so I needed to use the food bank,” Lee recalls. At the time, she was able to select the fresh produce she needed and was then handed a prepared bag of canned goods, some of which were unfamiliar to her. “It’s something that I’d never done before. It felt stigmatizing for me.”

Where space permits, food banks in Toronto now operate a grocery store or shopping model. “Food groups are situated the way you might see them in a supermarket,” explains Richard Mattern, senior manager of research at the Daily Bread Food Bank. “People can go through the food bank and choose what they take home according to what their households need.”

For Lee, a former receptionist who is now on disability, her circumstances have improved and she’s no longer reliant on food banks. While she struggles with traditional food shopping options in her midtown neighbourhood (the closest grocery store is a Whole Foods Market), she’s putting dinner on the table in a different way.

Every Wednesday afternoon, a small food market pops up in the lobby of Lee’s Toronto Community Housing building. There, she can obtain the bulk of her fresh shopping list at just above cost. “I got a whole bunch of fruits and vegetables the other day and it cost me $5.25,” says Lee. “I thought, ‘are you sure you added that up right?’ At a grocery store that would have been $20.”

The setup is part of the Good Food Market network and is one of 42 across the city. While the market isn’t able to meet the needs of the severely food insecure (as in, those without funds to purchase their own food), it represents a wave of community programming at non-profits like FoodShare that are offering a more sustainable source of affordable and healthy groceries.

The Good Food Market represents a wave of community programming at non-profits like FoodShare

Paul Taylor, executive director of FoodShare, has personal experience with the struggle of food affordability.

Paul Taylor, executive director of Food Share, a Toronto-based food non-profit

“I was raised by a single mother on welfare in downtown Toronto,” Taylor recalls. “For a large portion of my childhood we had no heat, no hot water, no electricity. Sometimes I had peanut butter and jelly for lunch. Sometimes, not.”

Taylor is now at the helm of FoodShare’s dizzying portfolio of community activities. They’ve piloted Good Food Markets in three TTC subway station newsstands and retrofitted an old Wheel-Trans bus to serve as a mobile market. FoodShare also operates rooftop farms on public land that employ youth to maintain and sell the produce grown. There’s also strong outreach activities for kids such as a toddler nutrition program, which is offered in seven languages. These are just a few of the organization’s many community programs helping Torontonians.

One of Taylor’s points of pride at FoodShare is the school breakfast program. Organized in partnership with the Toronto District School Board and Student Nutrition Toronto, the program helps serve a morning meal to nearly 200,000 students every day.

Canada remains one of the only industrialized countries without a student nutrition program

“Canada remains one of the only industrialized countries without a student nutrition program,” Taylor explains. “If I had access to a breakfast program every day it would have impacted my ability to focus and to persevere through the day.”

When we visited FoodShare headquarters on a sunny Friday morning this winter, shipments of fresh produce from the Ontario Food Terminal as well as direct from local growers, had just arrived.

A team of warehouse workers, with the help of a corporate volunteer group from CIBC, were loading boxes of navel oranges, fresh berries, romaine lettuce, bananas and tiny apples measuring just a few inches in diameter, onto wooden pallets. Each pallet would eventually be shipped by truck to Toronto-area schools and the produce above prepared for and served to its students.

Leveraging the help of volunteers, along with financial assistance from donors, is how FoodShare keeps costs down and passes savings onto its program participants. Another mode is exploring creative partnerships with nearby producers, like the Norfolk Fruit Growers Association.

“Most apples in grocery stores are way too big for kids to eat, so we use these little apples,” Paul Taylor says. “For the Norfolk Fruit Growers, they’re delighted. Otherwise they have a hard time selling little apples.”

It’s tempting to simplify the answer to solving hunger as getting more apples into the stomachs of hungry students, or food onto the tables of those in need. But the issue is widespread and much more complex.

“Hunger allows us to think that it’s an issue of food and that we just need more food,” says Taylor of policy priorities. “We’ve let hunger co-opt poverty.”

We’ve let hunger co-opt poverty

Making Toronto a more food secure city goes beyond donating money, bringing cans of beans to your neighbourhood food bank or volunteering at a non-profit. Both front-line charities like Daily Bread Food Bank and organizations like FoodShare are strong voices for housing benefits, an increase in social assistance benefits and, more recently, the Ontario Basic Income pilot.

It’s a harsh wake-up call for Torontonians that have been appeasing their guilt or desire to do good with castaway non-perishables.

“A can of last year’s cranberry sauce is not going to help people in the way that some might think. What will help is people having enough income to pay their rent, get to work and buy food,” says Paul Taylor.

Taylor himself is critical of food banks and relying on charitable sources to meet the needs of the hungry. “We have a generation of folks that don’t see any alternative to food banks. That means we are thinking less, encouraging and advocating less and pushing the government less to work with food banks and food charities to introduce meaningful public policy interventions.”

Many food non-profits like FoodShare echo Taylor’s calls to close food banks. But U of T’s Valerie Tarasuk reminds us that food banks remain the only source of food for those in desperate need. Until the government offers a solution, food banks will continue to serve this important purpose.

The complexity of Toronto’s food insecurity means that none of these organizations can do it alone. At Daily Bread, Richard Mattern is aware of the limitations. “Food banks have never claimed to be the solution,” he says. “They’ve always been recognizing the immediate need. Many food banks like ourselves and other food banks across the city have been involved in these longer-term discussions on what needs to change with the income security system.”

U of T’s Tarasuk has long been advocating for policy change through her work.

“We have to get over the idea that somehow, we as individual citizens can fix these problems. We can’t,” she emphasizes. “There are some things that are just too big for us to fix as individuals, and that’s why we have governments.”

Join us in advocating to the government for meaningful policy change

There is one thing that policy researchers, non-profits and food banks can agree on. Donations help, but there’s more we can do to make a difference, as Paul Taylor describes.

“If everyone wrote to their MPP and said ‘great to see movement on minimum wage but unfortunately it’s far from a living wage. What is the plan to create a province where people can earn income that actually allows them to live in the province they’re working in?’, these are things that can happen right now,” he suggests as a first step.

“Join us in advocating to the government for meaningful policy change focused on income,” he continues. “That’s a big piece of the puzzle that’s missing for us.”