Daily Bread Food Bank CEO Neil Hetherington on why the charity is sending out a record 50 tonnes of food per day

Daily Bread Food Bank CEO Neil Hetherington on why the charity is sending out a record 50 tonnes of food per day

Photographs courtesy of Daily Bread

Food inflation hit 10.8 per cent this past August, its highest level since 1981. As grocery prices soar, a growing number of Torontonians are turning to food banks for help. Daily Bread is an Etobicoke-based food bank that collects and delivers essentials to 183 programs citywide. CEO Neil Hetherington has watched demand for Daily Bread’s services reach record highs almost every month this year—and the need isn’t letting up any time soon.

How has food inflation, compounded with the lingering effects of Covid, affected the demand for food banks in Toronto?
We’re in the midst of a crisis. Before Covid, Daily Bread’s network of food programs was getting about 60,000 visits from clients per month. Since the start of the pandemic, that number has tripled to 180,000. On average, each visitor is supporting 1.7 members of their household, so the real number of people in need of our services is even higher.

Who are the Torontonians making those 180,000 monthly visits to Daily Bread?
Whenever people asked me this question in the past, I’d often say it was the person experiencing poverty sitting beside you on the subway or streetcar. But it’s now increasingly also people with full-time jobs, maybe even seated in the cubicle across from yours. And there’s no end in sight. In August, there were 8,800 families accessing Toronto food banks who’d never used them before. And we’re forecasting approximately 225,000 monthly visits to Daily Bread by March 2023.

That’s nearly quadruple your pre-Covid levels. How did we get here?
Across the board, many Torontonians are earning incomes that don’t match what is required to thrive in their communities. Living in our city is becoming less and less affordable. Rent for a one-bedroom in Toronto now costs an average of $2,329 per month, and the average GTA home price this past July was more than $1.1 million. To make things worse, salaries haven’t risen to match those housing costs, and stable long-term jobs are gradually becoming a thing of the past. Many Torontonians are forced to rely on precarious employment, cobbling together two or more part-time jobs without benefits to meet their basic needs. The precariously employed often end up making difficult choices between paying for rent or buying essentials like groceries and prescriptions. And then there are Torontonians with disabilities, who only get about $1,200 in monthly ODSP payments, which simply isn’t enough to cover their expenses. So they’re forced to rely on family, friends and places like Daily Bread to survive.

How has Daily Bread managed to meet this increased demand?
At the beginning of the pandemic, there was an outpouring of donations from Torontonians. We also witnessed a surge of people opening pop-up food banks across the city to serve the needs of their community. Those volunteers often risked their own health to distribute food to those in need. Those donations and volunteer numbers have declined since the economy began opening up again. But, with the funds we’ve raised, we’ve boosted our annual food budget from $1.6 million to $13 million. Within less than three years, we’ve gone from sending out 30,000 pounds of food per day to roughly 110,000 pounds. We’re in good shape right now, but I do worry about how we can sustain ourselves if visits continue climbing at their present rate. That said, we’re prepared to increase our fundraising efforts by as much as necessary.

Neil Hetherington inside Daily Bread’s warehouse

What has all this looked like on the ground?
When Toronto went into lockdown in spring 2020, Daily Bread made a commitment to the city that we would make every delivery on time, no matter how many people had to use a food bank. Of course, we had to figure out how to keep us open with all the public health mandates at the time. I brought the entire staff together in our cafeteria and asked for volunteers to work and sleep in our building 24/7 to make sure food reached desperate Torontonians at that critical moment of uncertainty. To my astonishment, more than half of our staff put their hands up. Since then, everyone has stepped up. Our truck drivers are doing twice as many deliveries as they did prior to the pandemic. We’re not in a state of panic anymore, but we’ve been running on adrenalin for nearly three years now. We’re also fuelled by anger and frustration that so many people need to rely on a food bank in a city as great and prosperous as Toronto.

How have you and your staff coped with that anger and frustration?
It hasn’t been easy. The record inflation and demand we’re experiencing is a constant source of worry that keeps me up at night. My colleagues and I have spent long days figuring out how to keep the food deliveries coming. Despite the anxiety among my staff, we remain hopeful. We’re going through our darkest days right now, and things are looking bleak for next year, but I’ve never been more inspired to fight for the right to food. And we’re doing this work while paying our staff of 88 employees a living wage of at least $22 per hour, which is generally considered the minimum wage you need to get by in Toronto. I hope the ethos behind a living wage gains traction as our city tackles this crisis: if you care about your employees, they’ll care about you.

What needs to happen at the policy level?
All three levels of government must implement a concerted poverty-reduction strategy that addresses the societal gaps that got us to this point. There are some optimistic signs that solutions are on their way. For example, all four major parties in the recent Ontario election talked about the need to increase monthly ODSP payments. That was a monumental moment because we’re now having conversations about disability income supports in addition to impassioned arguments about addressing affordable housing and precarious employment. Those conversations are happening in public and at the kitchen table, and when those conversations get loud enough, they translate into social policies that have a direct on-the-ground impact. Case in point: if we raise monthly ODSP payments by just $15, that will result in approximately 50,000 fewer visits to Toronto food banks annually.

Is there anything you’d like to see candidates advocate for in the upcoming Toronto municipal election?
The city is providing $7 billion in land permits, fees and grants to develop affordable housing. I want to see a continued emphasis on that.

What can Torontonians do to help?
Donating food or funds to Daily Bread will improve a fellow Torontonian’s life immediately. Those who can’t contribute can contact their elected officials and say, “Please make poverty reduction a priority.” It’s that simple. My hope is that all Torontonians make this a priority in the municipal election and in provincial and federal politics too. We have to stand up and clearly state that the values we espouse are visibly and painfully not being lived out when we have this many people turning to food banks.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


October 3, 2022

This story has been updated to correct an error.