Filled with tents stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables, the set-up at Elmcreek Park in Mississauga looks like your average farmer’s market — except everything there is free.
“We wanted to provide an additional source of fresh and healthy fruits and vegetables and other fresh products in neighbourhoods where food insecurity is high,” said Meghan Nicholls, the CEO of the Mississauga Food Bank.
Nicholls says the food bank hasn’t necessarily seen a high number of new people using its services, but it is noticing clients coming in for food more often, and this is part of its strategy to continue making heathy food more accessible.
“Way over half of our food, at least here at the Mississauga Food Bank, now is fresh and frozen product,” she said, adding many other food banks are offering similar options.
As the price of just about everything from housing to food continues to rise, food banks are finding sustainable ways to keep up with the growing demand while also keeping communities healthy. From micro-farms to markets and buying wholesale ingredients, organizations say food banks and other programs like them are going to look much different in the future than they did when they first launched decades ago.
“Food banks have evolved over the years,” Nicholls said.
“I think when they started 40 years ago in Canada, people thought it would be temporary. So the concept of giving people non-perishable food temporarily is okay,” she said.
“But now people are using food banks on a regular basis and they’ve become a staple in the community because people’s incomes are too low to afford food on their own,” Nicholls added. And because food banks don’t seem to be going anywhere, looking long-term at healthy options is vital.
“We all want to be healthy and eat food that’s appropriate for our background, culture, health needs and kids,” Nicholls said. And while the food banks still take non-perishable donations, a big focus these days is on fresh products.
“I would encourage people to think about food banks a little differently.”
Rahul Singh, executive director at GlobalMedic says the organization launched its emergency food response program to address increasing needs during the pandemic.
“So many families make that choice between, ‘Do I pay my rent or do I feed my family?'” he said.
Something else the organization has noticed is the increasing cost of food, so GlobalMedic will purchase millions of pounds of staples, like grains and beans, and have their volunteers repackage it into bags that get delivered to food banks.
“The reason we do this is we want to give families a choice of the food they cook, we want the food to be healthy and nutritious, and stuff they’re familiar with and we also want to crush the cost.”
Singh says GlobalMedic also has another site in the works in Oakville, where volunteer groups will still be packaging food, but there will also be space to grow it.
“We’re going to grow some leafy greens and micro-greens and different types of lettuce to provide to the food banks,” he said. The goal is to cut back costs even more for local food banks.
“Just like the grains, we will be able to push four to five times more product out to the system for the same amount of money.”
Approaching food security holistically
For a group called 2-Spirited People of the 1st Nations, food programming is tied to much more than just making sure people don’t go hungry. The organization supports Indigenous peoples in the GTA, including those who are two-spirit, experiencing homelessness, living with HIV and who are part of the LGBTQ2 community.
Executive director Keith McCrady says they also carefully consider their ingredients.
“We use Indigenous foods that would be accessible to Indigenous people pre-colonization, focusing on healthier options like salmon, wild rice, berries and squash,” he said.
McCrady says they also have a program that provides hot meals for people living with HIV and others who are immuno-compromised.
“We break down the ingredients and how these ingredients are helpful and beneficial to them as people with these illnesses,” he said.
The organization’s food hamper focuses on healthy options, and they also often provide meal ideas and recipes to go along with it.
“We also have our own garden where we grow cucumbers, berries, onions and we put those in our own hampers.”
McCrady says running a non profit that provides food support is a big responsibility, because it allows them to provide people with access to not just healthy food, but also information to help improve their overall health. Looking back on a time when he used to access food banks, he sees the shift first-hand.
“I remember it was a lottery of, ‘What are we going to get?’ I remember it being very much things that were accessible to me already like no name Kraft Dinner and peanut butter, things I could already afford.”
Now he says the trend seems to be providing people with food that is not as accessible and comes with a higher cost, but improves people’s quality of life.
“We’re thinking holistically, not just saying, ‘Here’s a can of tuna.’ We meal plan, support families, and help people grow their own foods and understand where it comes from.”
And he says that community feeling around food is something anyone is welcome to come join and experience.
“If you have the time and resources, come share with us.”