In recent months a shortage of food at Kawartha Food Shares, the warehouse and distribution centre for emergency food in the Peterborough County and city, has been reflected at the local Peterborough food banks, food cupboards and meal programs.

John Alleyne, the Food and Warehouse Operations Manager at Kawartha Food Shares explains the shortage is in part due to a decrease in the number of food drives regularly carried out by them throughout the year.

“For a period of time we had no office manager, and a lack of man power to continue doing our regular food drives.”

He also asserts that the local demand for food has escalated: “We’re picking up now and continuing the food drives, but food banks keep asking for more food.” In fact, Kawartha Food Shares indicates that food bank use has increased 40% in the past five years.

Could the increase in demand and lack of provisions be classified as indicators of a hunger problem in the community? They certainly can be, as the increasing numbers of users of these programs were affected by the shortage.

However, looking deeper into the issue we see that a more accurate way of describing the hunger problem starts by questioning the need for food banks in Canada, and what role have they been playing since their appearance. Across Canada, in every territory and province, food banks have been established by necessity to meet the short-term need for food in communities: filling a gap opened by inadequate social assistance, lack of employment insurance, and lack of government support.

According to the Hunger Count Report published by Food Banks Canada in 2011, in Ontario alone 395,106 individuals where assisted by food banks in March of 2011 and 38% of those assisted were under age 18.

Locally, the Peterborough County Health Unit states in their 2012 Limited Incomes Report that 10% of the Peterborough population experiences food insecurity. The term “food insecurity” describes a situation where households worry about not having enough to eat, make compromises about the quality of food eaten, and do not have a variety of food choices available to them.

Furthermore, the report describes the situation of people receiving social assistance from the government, people who usually use the food banks and meal programs, and shows that affording a nutritious food diet is very difficult with the assistance received when taking transportation, utilities, personal care items, clothes, school and medical costs into account.

While Food Banks Canada reports that “persistent levels of poverty, food insecurity, and food bank use suggest that our social policy fundamentals need to be significantly improved,” achieving the reduction of our need for food banks and finding long-term solutions to hunger requires more involvement from the government and individuals.

Food Banks Canada makes seven recommendations to this end: invest in affordable housing, improve social assistance, protect Canada’s most vulnerable seniors, update employment insurance, support disadvantaged workers, invest in early learning and child care, and maintain a strong Canada Social Transfer (CST), the federal cash transfer to provincial governments that is meant to support post-secondary education, social assistance, social services, early childhood development, early learning, and child care.

John Alleyne also remarks that there’s no foreseeable end to the increasing use of food banks, and believes that there should be other forms of assistance and guidance coming from food banks, individuals, and the government to ease the need for emergency food.

At Trent University, the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG) runs an alternative food cupboard at Sadleir House for the Trent students, and the Peterborough community. OPIRG’s food cupboard stands out for its accessibility to users, as opposed to other food banks; no identification is required to use it; it’s accessible to students; can be visited once a week; and people can choose their own food.

OPIRG’s food cupboard has also been affected by the food shortage; during August and September it was open only half the time. It has gone from opening every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, to opening only on Wednesdays and Fridays. The cupboard is run by volunteers who also believe that help should not only come from them, but also from the government.

Elizabeth Holder, a volunteer at the food cupboard for three years, shares that every time the service is open it’s emotionally difficult to help when there’s not enough food and 40 to 60 people show up.  She explains that people who come first end up getting better food and fresh produce, while the last ones get less. The users are probably affected because not all can make it at a certain time on a certain day, and there’s not enough food to ration the provisions equally.

Rick Berry, who has volunteered at different food banks and now at OPIRG’s food cupboard, believes that the government should create better ways to support those who have lost their job. He says that “some people just sit around waiting for their next welfare paycheck,” because they are no longer able to be active members of the workforce. Nevertheless, Berry stays positive; he enjoys volunteering and agrees that people had reasons to complain when the food cupboard had even shorter hours of operation, but declares the amicable and respectful atmosphere at the food cupboard made everyone leave with a smile.

Trent Students Tori Silvera and Cornel Grey were glad to share their opinion as well. They make use of the food cupboard often, but the shorter hours of operation did not affect them. Silvera recognizes that the hunger problem is not present only in Peterborough, but everywhere. She also believes that the government should provide more assistance alongside the service food banks provide. Grey, an international student, shares that the service offered by the food cupboard is a great assistance to cut on groceries costs, especially for students trying to save money.

While changes in social assistance may take time to come, OPIRG tries to keep the food cupboard  as open and accessible as possible despite the difficulties. The hunger problem is a real issue that the food banks, meal programs and food cupboards attempt to alleviate on a regular basis.

Students who run out of flex dollars, or who are trying to save some money should take this service into account. It is here to help them, and members of the community. The food bank hours of operation can be found on the OPIRG-Peterborough website: www.opirgpeterborough.ca