Every week, hundreds of refugees from Syria arrive at the Mississauga Muslim Community Centre's food bank to fill their baskets with groceries. As these newcomers walk through the food bank, they follow a similar pattern: Avoiding processed foods such as pasta or prepackaged meals and scanning the shelves for halal items or other Syrian staples: rice, chickpeas and lentils. The problem, the food bank's head of operations Najam Syed said, is that the centre rarely has enough of the latter items. But the prepackaged, processed stuff, he receives by the truckfull.
"These people are new to this country. At least with food, they want to eat something they're familiar with," Mr. Syed said. "We need to cater to that need, to that audience, if we want to be helping them."
Mr. Syed is not alone in this predicament. As food banks across Canada struggle to meet an ever-increasing need – up 28 per cent from eight years ago, according to a new report from Food Banks Canada – they also struggle to meet the demands of a user base that is changing demographically, and requesting different and healthier foods.
According to Food Banks Canada's HungerCount report, 13 per cent of people who used food banks in the past year were immigrants or refugees. As in the case of the Mississauga Muslim Community Centre, many of them were part of the wave of refugees from Syria who settled in Canada in the past year.
Change in food bank use in Canada, 2015 vs. 2016, by province
These families do receive government support – about $2,500 each month for a family of four, according to Mr. Syed. But in urban areas where housing costs are especially high, such as Toronto, Vancouver and their respective suburbs, much of that winds up going toward rent. The Surrey Food Bank, about an hour outside of Vancouver, saw a 17-per-cent increase in use last year due in large part to Syrian refugees. And the food bank Mr. Syed runs was created in February specifically to address Syrian refugees, who make up about 95 per cent of the user base.
Still, the food Mr. Syed receives from organizations such as the Mississauga Food Bank, which distributes food through dozens of food banks and meal programs across the city, often does not reflect this changing need.
"People have in their heads what they want to donate," said Jon Davey, the manager of food programs and distribution for the Mississauga Food Bank. The organization receives food not only from members of the public, but also from corporate donors. For Food Banks Canada, which supports a network of over 500 food banks across the country, its major supporters include companies such as Campbell's, General Mills, PepsiCo and Mondelez International.
"We can ask for rice and lentils and tuna until we're blue in the face – it works to a degree," Mr. Davey said. "But pasta, soup and snacks are three things that are constantly filling up."
Ethnicity and culture are not the only types of change that food banks face. Increasingly, Mr. Davey said, food banks such as his are dealing with the effects of an aging population, as well as an increase in young people receiving food assistance. More and more universities and colleges have begun offering food-bank services on their campuses.
Another major shift Mr. Davey said he's seen is an increased demand for healthier, fresher options – mirroring the concerns of the general public about healthier eating.
Over the past year, he said the organization has worked with dietitians to better track its food supply to ensure items cover all four food groups.
He also said that he regularly refuses large quantities of unhealthy donations from both private and corporate donors. Others have done the same. An Ottawa food bank made headlines in 2014 after refusing to accept donations of items such as Kraft Dinner and Dunkaroos. That announcement sparked some criticism, with some questioning whether the Ottawa organization was being overly picky.
Mr. Davey acknowledged these concerns, but emphasized the difficult position his organization and others like it are in. "I'm not trying to disparage the donations we get, because we're extremely happy people think about us at all," he said.
Still, he added, "just because people are lower income and need to use the services doesn't mean they don't deserve to eat healthy, and doesn't mean they don't want to eat healthy."