Food charity sees dramatic rise in need, instability ahead

By James Matthews
The Central Food Network operates with a “no wrong door” approach in helping people make ends meet.
Nancy Wright-Laking, who is in her third term as chairperson of the network’s beard, and Tina Jackson, executive director, spoke to Highlands East township council when it met June 13.
The CFN does more than address food insecurity in the eastern reaches of Haliburton County: Highlands East and the eastern part of Dysart et al. The organization’s other focus in on addressing the impact of energy poverty throughout Haliburton County as a whole.
But, as described by the network’s leadership, they take it a step further when they can.
Jackson said the network operates with a no wrong door approach to helping people.
“Even when somebody calls us and it has nothing to do with heat, we try to help facilitate where they should be calling and help them to do so if they need the assistance to do that,” she said.
That includes provincial programs, social assistance applications, housing, dental assistance.
“You name it,” she said, “we have probably answered a question about it.”
Celebrating its eighth year as an incorporated non-profit and half that time as a registered charity, the network was borne of an organization that had been serving the region for about a decade.
Wright-Laking said network staff and volunteers work long hours to ensure food and heat insecurity are addressed.
“As many other charities are finding, more volunteers are needed,” Wright-Laking said.
To that end, the CFN is making volunteer recruitment a heightened priority.
“We will have many of the board finishing their terms next year and we are trying to ensure we have a succession plan in place to replace these members,” she said.
The network’s Heat Bank services aims to support county households that are experiencing a heat- or hydro-related crisis. Families can avail of furnace fuel grants and firewood for heating emergencies, assistance to apply for grants for relief, assistance filing taxes, and help with the various programs.
At the heat bank last year, 216 calls for assistance were fielded and 156 households were helped. As many as 53 loads of fire wood was dispersed.
Jackson said the network offers a sliding scale toward providing help depending on the crisis level and the individual household’s specific needs.
“While we have that person on the phone and we’re doing the intake together, basic details, we are constantly screening for other benefits and services and programs that may assist with their heating needs, their hydro needs, and sometimes other things that pop up throughout the course of that conversation,” Jackson said.
Most recently, the CFN has offered free income tax filing for lower income households that have a simple tax return. It’s a program offered by Revenue Canada and hosted locally by the CFN.
“We really felt this was important because it assists households in accessing financial benefits that they otherwise would not get,” Jackson said. “It better helps with their stability. If they have income coming in through the door, they’re better able to manage their household costs.”
Last year, the CFN helped people file 58 income tax returns.
On the food services side, the CFN offers one-time emergency food assistance and regular food hampers, she said. They helped 208 households access food and fed 194 people monthly. They did 180 food deliveries and prepared 4,441 meals.
“We do realize that a lot of our clients, the only foods going into their kitchens are what we give them,” Jackson said. “So we don’t restrict that to once a month.”
She said their food banks serve 22 per cent more people on average every month compared to 2021. The heat back last year served 27 per cent more households over the previous year.
“We really are seeing huge increases in the number of people needing access to our services,” she said. “When we’re talking to food banks across Ontario, everybody is seeing that impact.
“These really have been challenging times for people, young and old alike.”
Wright-Laking said the CFN needs to build capacity and prepare for more uncertainty ahead. Revenues need to increase to support the increasing needs in the community.
“There is no one who is predicting stability in the months ahead,” Wright-Laking said. “So we are stretching every dollar and we are stretching every foot of space that we have.”
Deputy Mayor Cecil Ryall said the demographics of food bank users have dramatically changed over the years, along with the numbers of people who need to avail of the service.
“At one time there was a lot of more or less destitute people,” Ryall said. “Now that is no longer the case. There are some people who are actually working but just can’t make enough money to make ends meet.”
He said he offered that observation as a means to commiserate with the food bank representatives about the changes to which they’ve had to adapt in a changing, increasingly difficult world.
“I wish I had an answer on how to solve it,” Ryall said. “But please don’t stop doing what you’re doing.”