By Ruby Irene Pratka
Local Journalism Initiative
The border restrictions and supply chain fears that made headlines early in the COVID pandemic may be receding into the collective rearview mirror, but food is becoming harder and harder to afford for the poorest Quebecers – and for the organizations that provide them with much-needed food aid.
Geneviève Coté is the director of Moisson Estrie, the region’s largest food bank. She said that where three or four years ago the organization was paying between $7-8,000 each month for food, they’re now paying closer to $28,000.
Moisson Estrie distributes food to individuals and families facing food insecurity, after a needs-based evaluation process. Users have access to a “social grocery store” where they can choose what they need; some items are free and others are sold below supermarket rates. More and more people are knocking at the food bank’s doors; demand is up 35 per cent from 2019 levels. “Now, we’re seeing people at the food bank who have jobs or pensions,” Coté said. “Even though they have an income, because of the rising cost of food, they aren’t able to manage when there’s a problem.” The food bank has even had to modify its hours to allow users to pick up food hampers after they finish work.
As the cost of food has gone up, supermarkets are stocking less, meaning that there’s less unsold food left at the end of the day for local stores to donate to Moisson Estrie and similar organizations. “We’re the last link in the food chain,” Coté said. “Rising fuel costs and everything else other people are dealing with, we’re dealing with it too, and the cost looks like it’s just going to keep going up.”
Françoise Lepine is the food bank coordinator at the Centre d’action bénévole de Sutton. The centre provides monthly food hampers for families in need in Sutton and Abercorn. Like Moisson Estrie, it relies on donations from a local supermarket and from the annual Guignolée food drive around the holidays, and smaller regular contributions from individual donors and local businesses. “Then I go to the store and buy whatever we’re missing, to make sure people get a bit of everything – soup, dessert, hygiene products, that sort of thing,” said Lépine. “I’m running after the sales, and I’ve never had to do that before.” Demand has crept up from about 25 hampers a month to closer to 30, she said, and of the people who request food aid for the first time, more and more have jobs.
General director Valérie Marin of the Centre Marguerite-Dubois in Bromont has noticed the same phenomenon. “People’s incomes just do not go as far anymore,” she said, mentioning gas prices, which rose to record heights last month, a housing crisis which has led to rising rents, the end of pandemic-related emergency benefits and across-the-board inflation.
Marin and Lépine say the perception of the Eastern Townships as a well-off area belies the day-to-day reality of the low-wage workers employed at the area’s resorts, hotels and restaurants. “In Bromont, there’s a big divide between average families and people who are very rich,” Marin said. Lepine was more succinct: “There are two Suttons.”
“We have had a lot of demand from people who have said they were doing fine until January,” Marin said. “In February and March things started going up; the war in Ukraine had an impact [on food prices] and a lot of people had to take unpaid leave to self-isolate. Some also had to pay back their first month of CERB – reimbursing money they don’t have. The budget that was working before just isn’t working anymore…and the first thing you cut is groceries.”
Marin said the centre receives food from Moisson Granby and a local supermarket, and also gets large quantities of donated vegetables from local farmers. The centre’s staff chef and a crew of volunteers transform the vegetables and other donated food into hundreds of heat-and-eat meals, distributed to seniors and other people “experiencing a loss of autonomy.” Despite the pressure that inflation has put on the centre’s operations, she counts herself and her colleagues lucky to have access to a steady supply of vegetables, a large kitchen and a community increasingly aware of the need to prevent food waste. “People used to throw away food a lot more, but now we can give that food a second life,” she said.
Individuals, farms or businesses interested in donating food or making a financial donation to Moisson Estrie, Moisson Granby, the Centre Marguerite-Dubois or the Centre d’action bénévole de Sutton can contact the organization(s) directly.