Food banks pivot to COVID-friendly donation events this Thanksgiving

Canadian food banks faced with a second pandemic-era Thanksgiving are counting on COVID-friendly donation events to keep the non-perishables rolling in at a time of year that’s pivotal to their operations.

The pandemic’s fourth wave has put the kibosh on large-scale, in-person food drives typically held at Thanksgiving, which are needed to keep the doors open year-round, said Neil Hetherington, CEO of the Toronto-based Daily Bread Food Bank.

“Demand doesn’t increase over Thanksgiving, but between Thanksgiving and the holiday season is when our supply changes and allows us to plan out for the next year,” Hetherington said. “So we need to get the food in now that we will distribute over the coming quarters.”

To do that, Daily Bread pivoted to a drive-thru model that saw cars and vans line up to drop off canned and boxed food.

Hetherington said he was hopeful the event would bring in the donations his organization needs, but that the joy of their usual Thanksgiving food sorting event is hard to replicate.

“One of the things that I love about the public food sort is that you literally have a thousand people over the course of the day come into a giant warehouse and do good,” he said. “And they’re meeting new people, and they’re all there for one central purpose, which is the mission to make sure that nobody goes hungry.”

That mission is even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic, when demand for food banks’ services has skyrocketed.

Hetherington said that before the pandemic, Daily Bread saw around 60,000 clients each month.

That number has doubled in the 19 months since the pandemic began.

“Some months are a little bit better than others, but we’re seeing a consistent upward trend of the number of people who are having to turn to food banks,” he said. “And regrettably, our forecasting is not optimistic for the next two years.”

As government support for those affected by the pandemic tapers off, he said, the food bank expects to see more people rely on it.

The same thing happened after the 2008 recession, he noted, when it took until 2011 for demand to return to normal.

Rachel Dixon, director of development for Feed Ontario, a collective of hunger-relief organizations, said the demand is particularly worrying because financial donations have slowed.

“As the pandemic has continued to go on, I think we’ve all grown a little bit exhausted with the pandemic,” she said. “We’re also seeing that play out in some of the donations.

“A lot of those first-time gifts that we got last year have not been repeated, which means that as we’re going into another big season, a lot of food banks are quite worried about what that means for their financial resources.”

She said that in addition to the drive-thru model, some of Feed Ontario’s members have partnered with grocery stores so people can donate food right where they shop.

“It really has meant a big change for how food banks are operating, but also getting creative in the ways that they can still work with communities to ensure that they have resources and their shelves are stocked,” Dixon said.

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