Canadian charities explain why 2023 has delivered the greatest need ever for food aid on Passover

Passover food hampers
Volunteers from Calgary's Jewish Family Service agency prepared 74 Passover hampers for needly clients this year, up from 55 in 2022. (Lisa Thomson photo.)

I spent Sunday morning (March 26) delivering heavy cardboard boxes filled with Passover food items to a dozen needy Jewish residents living in a subsidized apartment complex in Thornhill, Ont. All of the recipients at 601 Clark Ave. W. were elderly Russian-speaking seniors who had immigrated to Canada via Israel decades ago. 

I put a box in the kitchen for one couple where the wife was caring for her sick husband who had just returned from the hospital after suffering a stroke. Their neighbour down the hall came down to the lobby to pick up his box: both his ankles were so swollen he had them wrapped in athletic bandages to help him walk.

Every client I met was happy to receive the box from the National Council of Jewish Women of Canada‘s annual Passover food drive operation, which kicked into high gear ahead of the upcoming holiday.

My boxes were among the 3,000 which had been packed and prepared this year as the NCJW marked the 40th anniversary of its annual charity program. It is their highest number of clients on record since the drive started back in 1983.

Gail Crystal (left) and Shelly Feldman
Gail Crystal (left) and Shelly Feldman, co chairs of the National Council of Jewish Women of Canada’s Toronto Branch Passover Food Drive, during a pack-a-thon March 16 at Beth Emeth synagogue in North York, Ont. (Ellin Bessner photo)

“It’s actually a sad anniversary,” said Shelly Feldman, co-chair of the Passover food drive, during a recent interview at the sorting centre inside Toronto’s Beth Emeth synagogue in North York. “It’s 40 years of people being hungry and needing food and unfortunately the numbers keep going up and not down.”

This time last year, the campaign had 2,300 boxes going out during the lead in to Passover. With inflation driving the price of groceries up substantially for people, she explained, plus an additional 755 aging Holocaust survivors who now need help with their monthly bills, the need rose 30 percent over 2022.

It costs $90 to pack each box with three dozen items, including tins of mandarin oranges, tuna, Kedem grape juice, and candied fruit jellies. That’s up from $80 per box last year, said Gail Crystal, the other co-chair, adding that inflation meant they needed to raise nearly $50,000 extra to pay for the pallets of food supplies.

Although the NCJW Toronto branch was not forced to cut back on what was put in each box, they did change the special holiday greeting message that is placed on the outside. That’s because some of their new clients come from the influx of Ukrainian refugees who have moved to the area in the past year since the Russian invasion in February 2022. And now one of their “Happy Passover” greetings includes Ukrainian along with Hebrew and Russian.

Passover food boxes
Volunteers load Passover food boxes for delivery to needy Toronto residents at the 40th annual National Council of Jewish Women of Canada Toronto branch’s Passover food drive on Sunday March 26, 2023. (Ellin Bessner photo)

Worst food crisis in 40 years: UJA Federation of Toronto

Across town, the UJA Federation of Toronto‘s separate Passover food box operation holds its packing day on Sunday April 2. While the number of boxes will remain the same as in 2022—1,000 boxes—officials say the need is the largest in a generation.

“Toronto is experiencing its worst food crisis in 40 years,” said Steve McDonald, UJA Federation’s vice president of communications and marketing. “In 2022, there were 2 million visits to food banks in the city, an all-time high. Like other communities, many in the Jewish community have been similarly impacted by this crisis.”

Organizers are also feeling the impact of inflation on the costs of the groceries destined for each box, such as chicken, onions, and fresh fruit, but McDonald said Kosher City Plus, and a program sponsor, Pear Tree, helped make up the financial shortfall this year.

Ottawa feeding more Ukrainians and elderly Holocaust survivors

In Ottawa, the city’s Kosher Food Bank also went into action on Sunday for their Passover provisions. In the morning, a team of teenagers who belong to the Jewish youth groups NCSY and Gesher went to buy the groceries at a local supermarket together with their chaperones and Cantor Jason Green from Kehillat Beth Israel synagogue.  

In the afternoon, the volunteers worked at long tables inside the Coldrey Avenue synagogue to pack the food into green shopping bags. These will be distributed this week to some of the record number of needy clients on the food bank’s list this year.

“In terms of numbers, it’s really been quite sad,” said Linda Schwartz Prizant, the manager of the Ottawa Kosher Food Bank.

“I feel for so many people in the community that are truly, truly experiencing food insecurity and our numbers have gone up 20 percent just since January.”

Two years ago, she was feeding 111 clients during Passover. This year, at last count, it was 131. 

Ottawa Kosher Food bank
Volunteers pack Passover food at the Ottawa Kosher Food Bank event Sunday March 26 at Kehillat Beth Israel synagogue. (Linda Schwartz Prizant photo)

Fewer fancy chocolates, more basics

Like Toronto, Ottawa’s higher numbers of needy also include new Ukrainian immigrants and aging Holocaust survivors.

This week, all the recipients will begin to receive a double portion of food – their regular monthly container of provisions and grocery gift cards, plus a second bag of food just for Passover, also containing gift cards, but something extra, too.

Aside from the raw chicken and raw ground beef, milk, eggs, juice, toothbrushes, feminine products, incontinence pads and shampoo, Ottawa clients will have ready-made seder plates added to their supplies, courtesy of the MADA charity from Montreal.

Schwartz Prizant also felt the impact of inflation in how much extra money she had to seek from donors to cover the costs of the food. In Ottawa, people can sponsor a family at Passover with a donation of $120 this year. Last year, the same food cost $100.

Still, she knows that she may have to change up what each client gets, because of rising prices.

“Some items are $4 more per item, whether it’s instant coffee, or I have a few people who want jarred gefilte fish and that’s an incredible cost increase, and it does definitely impact what we can get for people,” she said.

As a result, they will stock more basics–and fewer luxuries such as fancy chocolates.

‘This is the toughest time’: Calgary JFSC

In Calgary, volunteers stuffed 74 bags of passover goods for needy clients this month, plus grocery gift cards. (Lisa Thomson photo)

In Calgary, which had the highest unemployment rate of any city in Canada in March, at 6.6. percent, that statistic has had an impact on the number of clients served by the Jewish Family Service Calgary organization.

Last year at this time, they packed Passover food hampers for 55 clients—this week, 74 bags were put together. That’s an increase of 34 percent. 

“I can tell you one hundred percent this is the toughest time,” said Lisa Thomson, a spokesperson for the JFSC agency.

Between what she describes as a “very, very, very large Ukrainian influx”, inflation, and rent increases in the Alberta city, times are tough.

That could explain why donations to the agency’s food bank are “very thin” for Passover, including fewer items placed by the Jewish community inside the food collection boxes located at synagogues and at the city’s Paperny Family Jewish Community Centre.

The agency is able to mitigate these challenges this Passover thanks to a new $50,000 grant from the Alberta government for the JFSC pantry, and also with the help of a local donor who gave grocery cards to supplement the food hampers. 

Jewish students pitch in

The Calgary food bags will be delivered over the next two weeks. This year, they were specially decorated by the students at the city’s Jewish Academy and the Halpern Akiva school. In Toronto, students from many schools helped pack the NCJW food boxes, and added personalized holiday greeting messages.

Grade 5 students (from left) Lev Weinstein, 11, Josh Katz, 10, and Ryan Levy, 11, from The Leo Baeck Day School in Toronto design colourful Passover messages to include in the boxes of donated food destined for 3,000 needy clients this week. (Ellin Bessner photo)

Lev Weinstein is in Grade 5 at Leo Baeck Day School in Toronto. He and his classmates spent the morning of March 16 at the packing depot. For Lev, who is 11 years old, the community service hour was more than just an ordinary field trip.

“It’s awesome because I want everyone to practise their religion and have Passover and have fun and eat amazing foods and if you can’t afford that then, well, I want to change that,” he said.

His friend Josh Katz, 10, doesn’t know anybody who is not able to afford Passover food personally, but was “sure that there are many who can’t.”

“So I guess that if, by making these boxes, it sort of helps them stay in touch with their religion because they can’t, but they want to, this is nice.”

  • Hear why the need is the highest it has ever been in Calgary, Ottawa and Toronto this year, on The CJN Daily.