NORTH BAY -- Staff and volunteers at The Gathering Place soup kitchen in North Bay are seeing a significant spike in clients in need of warm meals every day.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began last March, the soup kitchen has seen an increase of 20 to 30 per cent in demand for their services, setting unwanted records in the number of meals being handed out to the hungry and homeless.

"We have a lot of people coming in and a lot of people when they come in, they're saying they don't know what they'd do if this place wasn't open," said volunteer Elaine Wannop.

The Gathering Place broke its own dinner record Monday night, handing out 220 meals. Another 140 breakfasts were dished out that very morning.

"We've seen this reality now. It's now how do we prepare for it, as a kitchen, and how do we prepare for 220 suppers?" said executive director Dennis Chippa. "We can't just start turning people away."

Record-breaking numbers

Chippa said The Gathering Place is seeing record-breaking numbers in terms of meals every week. He said many clients are likely being forced to choose between eating and paying rent.

"That's what we're seeing, the low-income population," he said. "They're in those low-paying jobs and they're still working but only working part time … Once they come home from work, they pick up two or three meals for their family."

The Gathering Place said despite the challenges, it can hold down the fort with the increase in customers.

"Everybody pitches in and helps," said Wannop. "I just come in and make as many sandwiches as I can."

However, Chippa said there is added pressure on the soup kitchen's outreach team. It serves at least 200 meals each week in outlying areas.

"Our outreach team is heading over to Mattawa Wednesday to their food bank to hand out some prepared meals there," said Chippa. "Their food bank has 500 users."

The Gathering Place is hopeful there will be a dip in the number of clientele when the lockdown ends, but is preparing for a potential rough ride in 2022.