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Ottawa food banks struggling to keep up with demand amid funding crunch

OTTAWA — An Ottawa community organization says it is struggling to meet demand for its food program, and will need to cut back its services if it can't secure more funding.
Pallets of non-perishable food are seen in the shipping room at the Ottawa Food Bank warehouse in Ottawa is seen on Thursday, April 23, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

OTTAWA — An Ottawa community organization says it is struggling to meet demand for its food program, and will need to cut back its services if it can't secure more funding. 

With COVID-19 supports drying up and food prices skyrocketing, the Caldwell Family Centre is just one group pleading for more support from governments. 

"Before COVID, we were doing 85 meals a day. Now, we're doing 500 to 600 meals a day. There's a big difference. We need more help, keeping in mind all the food safety," said Marilyn Matheson, the organization's executive director. 

During the pandemic, the centre was able to secure emergency funding from various sources, including from the Ontario government. 

But its support from a provincial COVID-19 relief fund ended in December. And many other organizations are expecting money to stop flowing next month. 

Matheson said in an interview that many people the organization serves will be in trouble if it can't secure more funding. 

The municipal government is another major source of funds. But though its support has remained steady, those dollars aren't stretching nearly as far, Matheson said. 

"We're still trying to get funding from the city. We're in negotiations, but if we don't get an influx of money soon, we may have to look at closing other programs," she said.

The City of Ottawa says that the amount of money going toward community services has remained consistent, and its 2023 draft budget projects spending the same amount in the coming fiscal year.

Coun. Laura Dudas said that all levels of government need to work together to address the rising cost of living across the country. 

Dudas, who is the chair of the city council's community services committee, says the city recognizes that social services programs need assistance. 

She said the city already sets aside $1.6 million for food services programs in its annual budget, but funding is limited. 

Dudas pointed to the role of other levels of government in providing support. 

"There's the opportunity for us, as the city, to continue to press upon the province and the federal government to recognize that the need was there to fund services throughout the pandemic," she said. 

"But it demonstrates that there is a gap, that there are funding deficiencies in the system that need to be addressed."

Rachael Wilson, the CEO of the Ottawa Food Bank, said that the number of people seeking support from food banks has increased by 27 per cent. 

The food bank provides resources to the Caldwell Family Centre and other agencies in Ottawa, and Wilson said that additional funding will be critical to their ability to meet the moment. 

"Without that funding, they're having to cut back," she said.

"They're having to do more with less, and that's right across the whole network in Ottawa."

Wilson said that since a new city council is in place after municipal elections last fall, she is hopeful there will be more conversations about boosting local charitable organizations — though she said those aren't really happening yet.

She noted that food banks are no longer just about food. They provide resources to other organizations and referrals to other services. 

"We're a critical part of people's poverty reduction response, but we just are not treated as such," she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 3, 2023. 


This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Cindy Tran, The Canadian Press