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Monica Bettson, community chef at The Stop food bank, seen here on April 8, 2020, is now helping to prepare over 350 takeout meals per day for people in need with only two volunteers in the kitchen, reduced from five as a safety precaution, during coronavirus social distancing.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Monica Bettson would arrive for her shift as a chef at The Stop, a community food centre with three locations in Toronto, and check in with the regulars. They could be often found sitting, playing chess or reading the newspaper; someone would usually bug her to ask what’s for lunch.

She now misses that human connection so central to life at The Stop, which in recent weeks has radically overhauled its operations, like so many other Canadian food banks.

COVID-19 has led to shortages of volunteers, reduced levels of donations and the shuttering of facilities where the food centres are located, in turn forcing many services across the country to close down. In Toronto, for example, more than 40 per cent of food banks have been closed, according to city officials. Yet, as the pandemic’s economic effects worsen and huge numbers of people lose their jobs, the demand for emergency food services has spiked.

The past few weeks have felt like the longest in her nearly 10 years at The Stop, Ms. Bettson says. At its food bank, there has been a 30-per-cent increase in clients, many of whom have never accessed emergency food services before. The centre is also welcoming more people from outside its catchment area because of closings elsewhere.

Back when it was business as usual, The Stop served more than 1,000 meals a week through a sit-down restaurant-style service. Now people line up to get their meals in take-out boxes. Many clients bring the food to their apartments in the community housing building that sits above The Stop’s Davenport Road location, some carrying an extra meal for a relative or friend in isolation. People who may not have a home make do by eating their meals on the sidewalk or using the recycling bin as a tabletop.

The Stop is rushing to meet demand while contending with fewer volunteers and the cancellation of its two biggest fundraisers, which combined contribute more than $600,000 to its operations. The Canadian government recently announced $100-million in support for food banks, but local organizations are not sure how much funding they will receive, if any.

As a small independent charity, The Stop relies on mostly grassroots fundraising to operate, with only 10 per cent of its revenue coming from government sources. A big source of donations has been local restaurants, which face their own challenges amid the pandemic. One bakery donated 1,200 eggs.

Yonge Street Mission’s Davis Centre is one of the few food banks still operating in Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood. The area has one of the highest rates of child poverty in Canada, with nearly 40 per cent of child residents qualifying as low-income in 2017.

The Davis Centre usually feeds 600 people a week with its grocery services. Because of COVID-19, chief executive Angie Peters said demand has skyrocketed and the food bank is now stretching to feed nearly twice as many. Between the heightened need and a reduction in fundraising, Ms. Peters said Yonge Street Mission needs an additional $400,000 to cover a budget deficit. She hopes government funding will help with some of the costs, but has also appealed to the public for donations.

Meghan Nicholls, executive director of the Mississauga Food Bank, which supports nine neighbourhood centres, said there has been a 50-per-cent increase in uptake for its food-delivery program since January. But it has been matched by an equal drop in food donations because public food drives and collection from third parties have been cancelled. Because it is part of provincial and national networks, the Mississauga Food Bank will benefit from government assistance, but Ms. Nicholls said it will still be a challenge to make ends meet.

Local food banks are finding creative ways to feed their communities while supporting them in other ways. The Stop’s community advocacy program continues to run by phone. Yonge Street Mission has transformed its mental-health clinic to operate online, expanding its capacity to include an additional 240 sessions a month. The Mississauga Food Bank is offering resources to users who are navigating government social-assistance programs for the first time.

As the unemployment rate rises, food insecurity will too. As for what keeps her hopeful, chef Bettson is struck by the community’s resilience. “They’re really looking out for each other,” she said.

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