Step up for the underserved in North York
A few days ago I made an appointment for a vaccine for someone who couldn’t believe it could be that easy. Elder, cancer survivor and frontline worker, she had been trying to get the vaccine for months. “That’s it?” She asked, fighting back tears after I told her she had made an appointment at a local immunization clinic the day after her shift.
Long before COVID-19, food banks did their best to address the social and economic inequalities that left our communities food insecure. The communities we serve in northern Toronto have, for a long time, faced some of the highest rates of food insecurity, evictions, precarious employment and poverty in the city. Contrary to what some may believe, people don’t use food banks because they make bad spending decisions or are bad at budgeting. Members of our community turn to food banks because their rent is too expensive and because minimum wage and social assistance simply cannot cover basic living costs, keeping people below the poverty line. .
When COVID-19 hit, it quickly exacerbated existing social and economic inequalities and our food bank network had to respond to a 75% increase in demand while fully shifting operations to safely distribute food. in sensitive areas of COVID-19. Despite the forced shutdown of more than half of our network last March, we were determined to maintain our service, especially in the face of ever-increasing demand. To compensate for the closures, our branches extended their hours of service and we even operated outdoor pop-up locations throughout the winter.
When the vaccine rollout began, we saw the same patterns of inequity preventing those who needed it most from getting immunized. In April, sensitive neighborhoods had a much lower vaccination rate and access to vaccines than wealthier neighborhoods in the city. For essential workers who commuted to work every day, it was impossible to be in front of a computer clicking the refresh button a million times for a chance to book an appointment online. Even if it was possible, there was no guarantee that they would be able to take time off work to get the vaccine. For others, making an appointment online was simply not possible without the Internet or a health card.
The North York Harvest Food Bank has therefore responded to another emergency: getting vaccines in neighborhoods that need them most. We organized a clinic that vaccinated hundreds of food bank staff and volunteers alongside essential food workers across town. We’ve worked with local health teams in North Toronto to provide thousands of barrier-free appointments for the people we serve. We’ve connected health teams to dozens of essential workplaces – grocery stores, meat packing plants – to provide mobile clinics for essential food workers.
The North York Harvest Food Bank and our network will continue to mobilize to best meet emergency needs, but we are not the solution to poverty. It is not impossible to tackle the social and economic inequalities that create these needs in the first place, but it takes political will; legislate on paid sick leave and raise the minimum wage, raise social assistance rates above the poverty line and implement rent relief and regulate the housing market to create and protect affordable housing.
And most importantly, it will take all of us, refusing to allow cuts or the status quo and demanding that we emerge from this pandemic a more just and equitable society.
Chiara Padovani is the Community Advocacy and Agency Relations Manager at North York Harvest Food Bank.