Canada’s religious communities stepping up to help feed newcomers

Photo by Chethan Hasahalli. Sringeri Vidya Bharti Foundation in Toronto, Ont. collects food donations for those in need.

Amrita Roy Chowdhury Majumdar and Shilpashree Jagannathan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporters, New Canadian Media

Newcomers, including international students, are increasingly seeking sustenance from religious sites providing complimentary meals to cope with high food prices and the cost of living in Canada.

At the Shani Shri Vishwakarma Hindu Temple in Brampton, Ont., manager Yasvant Dhiman said he has noticed a significant uptick in students relying on community meals.

“There has been a significant rise in the number of students coming to us for meals,” Dhiman said. “We ensure that no one seeking food is ever turned away.”

The temple offers a Langar service, a concept traditionally associated with Sikh places of worship and  adopted by some Hindu temples. It provides a full lunch for about 200 to 250 people every week, Dhima said. 

Statistics Canada reports underline the severity of the situation. About 75 per cent of Canadians report they are finding it hard to meet daily expenses due to inflation. 

“Two thirds of Canadians reported that they were very concerned about rising food prices, while four out of 10 indicated that, when viewed in relation to price increases in other areas (e.g., shelter and transportation), they were most impacted by higher food costs,” according to a report released earlier this year. 

In Toronto, St. Volodymyr Cathedral’s Tea, Coffee, and Soup program began as  a post-pandemic fellowship initiative, but now serves as a communal hub for the local Ukrainian community. Attendance has grown from 15-20 to 60-70 people a week, said Parish Manager Oleh Vodiviz.

“While our primary aim is to foster community bonds, the fact that we are providing some relief to individuals is incredibly gratifying,” he said.

The St. Volodymyr Cultural Centre in Oakville, Ont., which is associated with the Toronto cathedral, runs a weekly food basket program for the Ukrainian community in the Halton region. 

John Holuk, program lead and executive director of Hearts4Ukraine, noted the escalating demand due to the cost-of-living crisis. The program started with 30 families and has aided 200 families so far, with 5-10 new families registering every week. He said he is worried about the sustainability of the program amidst rising expenses.

The food basket contains a variety of fresh produce, including fruits, vegetables, dairy, eggs, bread and meats. Holuk said the organization has funds allocated for another two months to support the needs of the registered families. 

As well as rising food prices, unemployment is leading to people using these community services. A recent report by Standards & Poor said Canada’s unemployment rate has increased to 5.5 per cent since the beginning of 2023.

“While some of it has to do with the increased labour force participation rate that has come with population boom, the hiring pace has also slowed,” according to the report. “With demand slowing alongside more people in the workforce, unemployment is likely to increase and average six percent next year.” 

In Toronto, the Sringeri Vidya Bharti Foundation, known for its annual food drive, has adapted its approach. The temple used to collect food from its visitors and patrons to pass on to the food banks, but this year, it has set up food donation boxes at the temple so anyone in need can help themselves,  said Param Bhatt, a trustee of the foundation.

“We’ve seen a rise in students and others coming to collect items directly from our donation boxes.” 

“Given the current economic challenges and the sharp rise in grocery prices, we believe this direct assistance can make a real difference to those facing hardship,” Bhatt said.

In the Surrey and Vancouver areas, the Gurdwara Nanaksar Satsangh Sabha has become a crucial support for the community, especially international students. Hardial Singh of the Gurdwara said there has been  a significant increase in Langar attendance, from 200 people to between 500 and 700 on weekdays, and 1,000 to 2,000 on weekends.