The needs for Ontarians’ relying on food banks continue to grow
Food banks aren’t supposed to exist in 2022, they were started in Canada about 40 years ago as a temporary response to the recession in the 1980s.
But Ontario residents have been visiting food banks in greater numbers and more often for six years running, a coalition of hunger relief organizations said Monday, noting the troubling trend appeared to escalate during the most recent year on record.
The findings are laid out in a new report from Feed Ontario, a collective of 1,200 direct and affiliate food banks and other organizations that work to address food insecurity.
The annual Hunger Report, subtitled “The Deepening Cracks in Ontario’s Economic Foundation,” found 587,000 adults and children visited the province’s food banks a total of 4.3 million times between April 1, 2021 and March 31, 2022. Feed Ontario said that represents a 15 per cent spike in the number of people turning to food banks for aid and a 42 per cent surge in the number of visits compared to numbers recorded in 2019.
The report said the findings, which mark the sixth straight year of increasing food bank users and visits, also illustrate the strain the system is facing.
Feed Ontario Executive Director Carolyn Stewart said, “I think what it really shows for us is that it’s increasingly more difficult … to escape poverty today than it was 40 years ago,” she said.
“It is the largest amount of people accessing our services on record since we’ve started collecting data and writing these reports,” in an interview.
“The pressures that … low-income Ontarians and marginalized groups are feeling with the unaffordability of today is exceptionally concerning. The fact that so many people need to rely on emergency food support to get by should be worrying all of us, not just Feed Ontario.”
The organization is calling on the provincial government to tackle a rise in low-quality work, invest in government-assisted housing, improve social assistance and centre people with lived experiences in the design of public policy and programs.
“There’s concern in the food bank networks that donations will not be sufficient to meet the need, that we won’t have enough food resources for this continuing growing need of people,” Stewart said.
The report found one in every three visitors was a first-time food bank user.
It says provincial government policies play a role in thousands of Ontarians needing to use food banks.
Some of those issues include:
- Minimum wage, which is $15.50 as of October, but “still falls significantly below a living wage.”
- Changes through the government’s Making Ontario Open For Business Act that cancelled paid sick days for people and eliminated a worker’s right to refuse last-minute or unscheduled work.
- “Insufficient” financial support is provided for people who need Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program. It noted two out of three people who use food banks are social assistance recipients.
- High cost of rent, often a fixed expense and non-negotiable, means people will pay for housing and have little left over for other necessities, like food, the report says. This goes hand in hand with a lack of investment in social housing, which often has long wait lists.
- Labour market changes in Ontario, including the rise in precarious employment and the gig economy.
“What is most concerning about this particular moment in time is the deepening cracks in our economic foundation that make it more difficult than ever for the lowest-income households to weather a new storm and the potential for it to leave lasting scars on our province,” the report said.
June Muir, chief executive officer of UHC Hub of Opportunities, helps oversee 15 food banks in the Windsor-Essex area, and at one location in Windsor, volunteers hand out food hampers.
“People line up and walk up for those food hampers, and sometimes we run out and it’s just heartbreaking to see people leave and not have food to leave with,” she said.
“What I see happening in our community are things I have never seen before, all while we’re struggling as food banks to keep food on our shelves.”
It attributed the spike to long-standing issues such as precarious employment, inaccessible unemployment aid and inadequate supports for those with disabilities, as well as more recent factors like rising inflation and the increased cost of living.
“Social assistance rates are continuing to fall far below low-income measures,” said Stewart. “That, being coupled with unaffordable housing, is really making it impossible to afford the most basic necessities for many individuals.”
Those who visited food banks in the past two years cited food and housing costs, low wages or insufficient work hours as the driving factors behind their visits.
“Imagine you already had a budget that was stretched thin. You’re already making impossible choices between keeping a roof over your head or keeping your lights on, buying winter clothes for your child or paying for more medication you might need,” said Stewart, noting those who turn to food banks are facing such dilemmas every day.
She said 30 per cent of food bank clients are children and youth under the age of 18, a number that has remained consistent in recent years. More than 50 per cent of those accessing such centres are on some form of social assistance, she added.
Stewart said food banks are now being asked to serve a role they were never designed to fulfil.
“We were developed as a stopgap measure in the ’80s and we were never intended to be a social safety net,” said Stewart.
“We were supposed to be turned to in terms of emergencies. But now as more and more Ontarians are unable to afford their most basic necessities.”
This article was reported by the Canadian Press.