By Mike Anderson

Georgina residents will have a new way to donate to the Georgina Community Food Pantry (GCFP) this August.

The Food Pantry, a non-profit community food bank located at The Link in Sutton, is launching a new gift card campaign called “Share the Gift of Fresh Food.”

Starting on August 1, customers at the Keswick FreshCo can purchase $10 and $20 gift cards at the checkout, which will be distributed to families in need.

According to Cesar Caneo, GCFP’s Executive Director, the $10 gift card can provide a family with milk and eggs for a week, while the $20 gift card provides milk, eggs and meat for the week.

“Those items, dairy, eggs and meat, never get donated because they’re fresh items. They’re also the most expensive items that we buy. And we have to buy those weekly,” he said.

“It’s great that FreshCo agreed to do this with us. Because when we do the food drives, we’re there all day, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., so we can’t collect fresh food and keep it from spoiling.”

While Caneo hasn’t set a goal for the campaign, he hopes it will help address the growing problem of food insecurity in Georgina.

“This is a new approach; we’ll have to see how it goes,” he said.

According to Caneo, 656 households were served by the Food Pantry in the first six months of 2023.

There’s also been a substantial increase in the number of first-time visits.

More than 246 new households are expected to register with the food bank this year. That’s up from 174 last year.

Caneo also points out that the breakfast program, which provides children with breakfast hampers that include items like yogurt, fruit, and cereal, started in February 2022 with 80 families each month; this year, that has almost doubled.

“2023 is shaping to go off the charts,” he said.

“Every month, we have seen an increase compared to the same month a year ago. So that’s not going to slow down.”

What’s more troubling, according to Caneo, is that studies show that only two in five households experiencing food insecurity will use a food bank. So, many more families in Georgina could be experiencing food insecurity.

“The local economy has slowed down. It still hasn’t fully recovered from the pandemic. And the problem has been compounded by inflation and higher food prices,” Caneo said.

“The number of people using the food bank is only a fraction. It’s the tip of the iceberg because less than half the people go there.”

Caneo believes the stigma of using a food bank keeps people away, especially in a small town.

The Food Pantry, according to Caneo, is trying to counter that stigma by making the experience more welcoming and dignified. Clients select their food items, much like a grocery store. And, there is no longer a means test. They are only required to provide proof of residency.

While Caneo is hopeful grocery shoppers will embrace the new gift card campaign, he would also like to see more local businesses hosting food drives and making financial donations.

According to Caneo, 85 percent of donations, both food and financial, are provided by individuals in the community, while only 15 percent are from local businesses.

“Our food bank, like the other food banks, doesn’t receive any core funding from any level of government,” he said.

“Donations raise all the money. So whatever happens to us, for good or bad, will depend on the will of the community. So we invite local businesses, whether a food business or real estate company, to help us.”