“Never been busier.”
Usually, that statement in this column — which typically features local restaurants — would be something to celebrate. This time, however, those words came from Chris Peacock, executive director of the Sharing Place Food Centre.
It’s not something to celebrate; it’s something to be concerned about.
“During my entire career at the Sharing Place, I have never seen the data like this,” Peacock said. “It is going strong in the wrong direction.”
There are some alarming stats in the organization’s latest impact report, but even that document doesn’t accurately reflect the current reality. It contains information relevant to the fiscal year that ended June 20. Only three months later, the situation is becoming more serious. All of the numbers, Peacock noted, are higher.
August was a record-setting month at the Sharing Place, when it assisted 1,784 people through its food bank.
Another unfortunate record was set in May, when there were 97 first-time visitors.
Visitors are able to pick up one order of food each month. They’re also allowed two “emergency orders” per year. The Sharing Place used to see about 50 emergency orders placed each month. In August, there were 224.
What’s driving these numbers up?
“It’s all inflation,” Peacock said.
As if costs weren’t high enough already — cost of food, cost of living, cost of fuel. Weigh those expenses against how much people are making, and we’ve got a problem.
As the Sharing Place’s impact report points out (again, keep in mind the numbers are greater now, in September, than they were in June), a family of four will see a seven per cent increase in food costs this year. Also, the average cost of a house in Orillia went up 38.6 per cent in a year, leading to a greater demand for rentals while the cost of rent spiked.
In the first eight months of 2021, hourly wages increased by just .2 per cent. Yes, that’s a decimal.
Half of food bank visitors say housing and utility costs are the reasons they seek assistance.
Adding to the demand for services is the fact social assistance, like that provided through Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program, hasn’t increased.
All of these factors put pressure on the Sharing Place, which is “way over budget” when it comes to food, Peacock said.
It’s a stressful time for the organization, but Peacock, his staff and his volunteers won’t be intimidated. They’re not rolling back services. In fact, they’re continuing to build on their reputation for being proactive and facing challenges head-on.
“The Meals-4-Change program, where we cook 500 healthy meals a week out of St. James’ and distribute them to agencies around the community, has been a huge success in 2022,” Peacock explained. “We have an amazing team of volunteers cooking these well-balanced meals from scratch.”
The School Fuel program is also going strong — a timely benefit with kids having returned to school earlier this month. The Sharing Place is providing healthy snacks to 4,500 students at 22 local schools every day.
“This is a busy time for parents, teachers and students, and we are happy to help relieve some of the stress associated with student nutrition,” Peacock said. “Access to healthy food is a great way to improve kids’ behaviours and their focus in school.”
Another reason to be hopeful is the strong relationship the Sharing Place has built with local farmers, grocery stores, and residents who grow produce on their properties and donate it.
“We are fortunate this time of year to be receiving some amazing produce,” Peacock said. “It is wonderful to share our local harvest with those who need it most.”
Sharing is the most important action one can take to help — sharing food, sharing money and sharing concern.
“If you want to solve the problem, people need to earn a bigger income,” Peacock said.
That won’t happen if we simply sit by and wait for it to become reality. It will take pressure being put on politicians and other decision makers. Reach out to them and share your concern.
Everyone is feeling the effects of inflation, to some degree, but if you can share even a little, please do. There are many ways to help. Find out more here.
Nathan Taylor is the central news desk editor for Village Media. He writes a local food and drink column for OrilliaMatters.