Power outages lead to spoiled food, worsening food insecurity in Ottawa

"I think there’s going to have to be a lot of work done around how to help people dig out of this hole now, the sort of aftermath of the effects of the storm."

Matthew Lapierre 12 minute read May 26, 2022

The power is back on in the Foster Farm neighbourhood, west of downtown, but dumpsters are filled with food waste: dairy products, meat that couldn’t be cooked and eaten, and even fruits and vegetables that spoiled quickly in the spring heat.

“There’s a lot that they had to throw out because they had no power Sunday, Monday, Tuesday,” said Marie-Louise Knight, house coordinator at the Pinecrest Queensway Community Health Centre, which runs a food bank in the neighbourhood. “You cannot refreeze it. I’m sure everything fresh, like dairy, all that in their fridges would have gone spoiled for sure.”

Knight managed to salvage the food bank’s supplies and ensure nothing was wasted. She came in on Sunday and distributed what she had to area residents who could cook it on barbecues.

But Knight said area residents, many of whom live in community housing, had recently stocked their fridges and freezers with groceries, which, with high inflation, are very expensive. “Then the storm hit,” she said, “so that’s going to be another factor. I think there’s going to have to be a lot of work done around how to help people dig out of this hole now, the sort of aftermath of the effects of the storm.”

Advocates have been sounding the alarm over food insecurity in Ottawa for months, caused in large part by rising inflation.

Saturday’s storm, and the power outage that followed, dealt a setback to families already burdened by the rising cost of food. Nine food banks lost power for a prolonged period due to the storm, according to Rachael Wilson, CEO of the Ottawa Food Bank. Eight of them were still without power as of Wednesday morning.

“Most of them are in community housing neighbourhoods so everyone around them will also have lost everything in their fridge and freezer,” Wilson said. “It’s thousands and thousands of pounds (of food) and thousands and thousands of dollars. We’re preparing to, once power is back, do the replenishment of all of those agencies and try to get people their food back as well.”

Replenishing those food bank stores will take longer than usual due to supply chain setbacks, Wilson said. In the meantime, the OFB is offering gift cards for families to purchase food and coordinating emergency meals to areas that remain without power.

Ottawa Community Housing said in a statement on Tuesday it was working with partner agencies, including the Ottawa Food Bank, to find tenants without power who need access to food and performing wellness checks.

But the cost of buying new groceries will weigh on families who lost the contents of their fridges and freezers, Wilson said.

“This kind of financial hit would be a huge one for families,” she said. “Think about what’s in your fridge and freezer right now and to have to start completely over again. That would have to be an economic hardship for sure. I know there is a lot of stress for families and for those agencies that will have to replenish that food.”

The OFB has issued a plea for donations. Cash is the most useful thing, Wilson said, because the OFB buys bulk orders of food. Residents can help the food bank most by making a monetary donation online via ottawafoodbank.ca/donate.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said at a news conference Wednesday that the city was freeing up $1.9 million from the social services relief fund to be provided to 20 community agencies that are working to ensure residents across the city have access to food.

Watson encouraged Ottawans to donate money to the Ottawa Food Bank or food goods, which can be donated at most grocery stores.

The issue has drawn the attention of the Ontario Greens. The party’s leader, Mike Schreiner, and their candidate for Orléans, Michelle Petersen, issued a statement on Wednesday calling for the government to divert emergency funds to Ottawa food banks.

“The devastating storm that tore across southern and eastern Ontario on Saturday is a clear example of the impact of the climate emergency on our food supply,” the statement said. “Climate change is making life more expensive. So many people are already struggling to put food on the table, and this climate-fuelled storm is making things even harder.

People in immediate need of food can use the food bank’s online “find food” tool at ottawafoodbank.ca/get-help or by calling 211.

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Read more coverage of last weekend’s storm 


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