Hunger is a daily problem for many in Toronto, but under the cloud of COVID-19, the tipping point is now at an unfathomable and unfortunate level. People are going hungry, and will continue to do so long after this pandemic is over.

Food banks rely on a steady flow of food, donations and volunteers to keep this machine running. We checked in with Second Harvest CEO Lori Nikkel to see how she’s navigating in these treacherous times.

What groups are most at risk of being food insecure?

Food insecurity is frequently linked to your income and the cost of housing: if you are working but not earning enough to cover your rent, utilities and groceries, food will become the “negotiable” expense, because you can buy fewer groceries but you can’t pay less rent. People who are precariously employed – with part-time or unpredictable hours – are at risk of becoming food insecure, as are people on fixed incomes, like seniors or people receiving disability support payments or EI. And that was before COVID-19 hit us. With so many businesses closed and/or operating on limited hours with less staff, people who were already vulnerable are being hit extra-hard. These are often the people who rely on meal programs, or school lunch programs for their kids, or food banks to help them make it through the month – now many of those programs have been closed to limit the spread of COVID-19 or have scaled back to implement social distancing protocols. Being a member of a vulnerable population is an even higher risk now than it was before March 16, and we cannot afford to let anyone get left behind.

How can Canadians help support these people in need?

We need to make sure every Canadian has access to healthy food. Since 1985, Second Harvest’s mission has been to ensure access to good food because, though the food itself will not “solve” food insecurity, our research has shown that the Canadian food supply chain generates an incredible amount of unnecessary waste that could actually feed Canadians rather than fill up landfills. Fifty-eight percent of all food we produce is lost or wasted, and one-third of that is edible, potentially recoverable food that can be found from farm to retail. Since COVID, we’ve accelerated the national expansion of our online food donation platform so local non-profits can make connections between food donors and the food programming that sustains so many.

How has COVID-19 impacted Second Harvest’s food donation supply and operations?

Nothing has stayed the same from one day to the next. The amount of food donations that we are receiving is incredible but it’s also creating a challenge making sure we can get it right across the country. The support we provide with our fleet of trucks changes daily as social service agencies pause their food support, while others start to provide food. This has resulted in constant route changes for our fleet and staff and more strain on the services that remain open.  We also had to quickly do cost containment as our fundraising was severely impacted.

But what has been equally powerful has been the outpouring of generosity from donors, from individuals showing their support by becoming monthly donors to foundations giving us hundreds of thousands to keep food recovery and delivery happening across Canada. We’ve been able to recover more than 3 million pounds of food since the beginning of March, so much so that we are becoming a distribution centre. We have also made new partnerships: from Air Canada donating food to the NBA donating funds and team-branded face masks, to Vodkow, a boutique distillery that’s pivoting to making hand sanitizer and donating some of it to us. The generosity and creativity is amazing to witness.

What will happen with the annual Toronto Taste event?

We decided to move Toronto Taste to 2021 out of respect and concern for our restaurant partners. Chefs and restaurants donate everything to Taste – from staff-time to food – and we couldn’t ask them to create amazing dishes for 1,400 people this fall when their period of recovery is going to take some time. We’re looking forward to celebrating next June 13, 2021, at Evergreen Brick Works.