Jewish Ottawa not immune to food insecurity

Food insecurity can be anything from worrying about having money to buy food, compromising food quality, or not eating enough by cutting the size of meals or skipping them together — and it’s something the team at Jewish Family Services (JFS) sees all too often. 

“It’s absolutely a problem that’s getting worse. I’ve been in low-income services for 40 years. This is something I’ve really seen as a trend. The Jewish community has not escaped that,” said Shelley Rivier, manager of the Tikvah team at JFS, which receives core funding from the Jewish Federation of Ottawa. 

“The problem with us being such a small community is that people don’t come forward in the numbers we know are out there.”

Ontario food insecurity data from the 2021 Canadian Income Survey suggests that almost 1 in 6 households (16.1 per cent) in Ontario is food insecure, amounting to 2.3 million Ontarians. In Ottawa, 1 in 7 households reports being food insecure, according to Ottawa Public Health.

And while Rivier is sure the needs in Ottawa match those numbers, they don’t see that many come to access services.

“We get a lot of clients who say ‘I’m not doing that badly, keep the money for others,’” said Rivier. “We try to tell them that the money is for everybody.”

Tal Palgi, Case Manager with the Tikvah Unit, said there’s a stigma related to being food insecure. 

“People want to live with dignity. When you can’t manage on your own, that affects how you feel, and you’re already at a disadvantage,” said Palgi. “The stress involved in asking for help, in depending on someone else, or maybe not even having your needs met … Poor quality food can trickle down to affect the rest of your health.”

Palgi said she sees people from all demographics — those in their 20s right up to seniors. 

“Folks who might be living in poverty often have a mental health challenge as well, which may prevent them from holding employment, so they have to depend on government allowance  — and those are usually painfully inadequate.”

Ontario Works provides approximately $731 per month for a single person. The Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) provides about $1,200 but requires a long, drawn-out process to apply. As Rivier pointed out, many of JFS’s clients have come from outside of Canada, so they don’t qualify for those programs. 

“Even before the rents went really high, you had to choose between paying rent and buying food. Making that choice is impossible,” said Palgi. 

After paying for rent and food, Ottawa Public Health estimates a single person on Ontario Works would have minus $588. If you are in temporary financial need, the Ontario Works program can provide you with money and help you find a job.

One component of JFS’s Tikvah program, which primarily provides a one-time funding stipend, is Miriam’s Well, which provides fruit and vegetables once a month. 

“Miriam’s Well is provided for by an anonymous benefactor — they provide various cases of fruits and vegetables,” said Rivier. Four Tikvah and Settlement program employees go through all the donated cases and put together packages for people to pick up. Sometimes up to 120 people come for a basket. 

“This month we had celery, broccoli, tomatoes, blueberries, romaine lettuce, a red pepper, potatoes, apples, and oranges,” said Rivier. “It’s not going to last them for more than a couple of meals if they’re using all of those items, but at least you’re guaranteed to have a meal that’s got fruits and vegetables that are healthy, and can be for any dietary needs.”

Dietary needs are often underserved by those accessing food banks — The Ottawa Kosher Food Bank (OKFB) provides kosher foods to help fill this gap. More importantly, the OKFB also provides gift cards to allow people to purchase what they need. 

“That’s the way people can help the most, through donations to OKFB and JFS,” said Rivier. “We hear the story all the time — our clients don’t need a bag of food, they need more money. Gift cards to Loblaws every month in addition to whatever they might get on ODSP or OAS, would be phenomenal.”

Rivier acknowledged that people may be more comfortable donating food, worried that if they donate money those in need won’t use it wisely. 

“That’s not my experience — when people are hungry they absolutely buy food,” said Rivier. “Who are we to judge what they buy? The food absolutely benefits clients, but they really need more money so they can make their own decisions.”

At this time of year, help is needed even more — not only are holidays a demanding time, but experts say food insecurity is expected to worsen as we move into the colder months, with people having to spend more on heating their homes, warm clothes, and back-to-school costs.

“It’s a vicious cycle — the less you can meet your needs, the more needs you have. It’s exhausting to have to be in this situation long term,” said Palgi. “Poverty is expensive — it costs more to be poor.”

To help people over the holidays, the OKFB has partnered with a special Canada-wide program called Hannukah Helpers, which anonymously pairs donors with families or individuals in need. To find out more email

A gift to Federation’s Annual Campaign also goes a long way in supporting our community’s most vulnerable. Visit here for more information and to donate: Since the start of the pandemic, Federation has also been making new allocations to the food bank.