Soot and the smell of smoke remain inside the Parkdale Food Centre’s community pantry two days after a fire badly damaged the enclosure.

"Paper, insulation and somebody had shoved all this stuff in here and they lit it on fire," executive director Karen Secord said.

Secord says the damage could have been much worse but an off-duty volunteer firefighter walking by acted swiftly.

"He smelled the smoke, he took all the stuff out of the pantry and immediately moved the fridge out worried about an electrical fire," she explained. "They really saved us from losing this whole shed."

The fridge and pantry provide food for those who need it most in Ottawa’s west end. Now, it's out of service at a time when these kinds of services are needed more than ever.

"Myself and a lot of people use this twice a week, sometimes more if I have to," said one person who dropped by to grab a few items.  

According to Ottawa Public Health, about one in seven Ottawa households are food insecure and nearly one in ten experiences moderate to severe food insecurity. Advocates say it means the services trying to bridge the gaps...are quickly becoming overburdened.

"With the cost of food continuing to rise, it's creating stress on people already struggling to meet their food security needs," said Ottawa Community Food Partnership manager Erica Braunovan. "The food banking system that we've been using is broken and we need to have new approaches to food security."

Staff at the Parkdale Food Centre say they fill the pantry and fridge four, five, even six times a day as the need in Ottawa worsens and more people turn to community supports.

"We are doing the best we can but where does this money come from. We have to rely on the community, we certainly can’t rely on governments," said Secord. 

Still, she says their efforts are not enough.

"When you see seniors coming up to the pantry and fridge from Mechanicsville dragging their bags behind them and getting here when there’s no food in the fridge, it’s heartbreaking. People are literally starving,” she said.