Food bank use across Ontario was already on the rise in the year leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new report. Then came another surge in demand as people grappled with unemployment, closures and loss of income throughout the pandemic.
Feed Ontario’s annual hunger report released on Monday analyzes food bank usage across the province, makes recommendations and also examines the impact of the pandemic on food banks and vulnerable populations.
After a year in which people made 3.2 million food bank visits, the number of first-time food bank visitors jumped 26.5% in the first four months of the pandemic, according to the report.
“This means that we are seeing brand new people who have never come to our services, and those who have accessed our services before are having more difficulties in life than those they have had to deal with before,” said Executive Director Carolyn Stewart. “This is extremely worrying for us.”
Before the pandemic
Between April 1, 2019 and March 31, 2020, the report states that 537,575 people used food banks – a 5.3% increase from the previous year – and that a third of those visitors were children.
The total number of visits was 3,282,500, an increase of 7.3% over last year.
Feed Ontario cites a lack of affordable housing, insufficient social assistance programs, and growth in precarious employment (such as part-time and casual work) as the top three drivers of food bank use.
Ontario also has the highest number of minimum wage workers in the country, Stewart added, noting that precarious work has been hit hard by the pandemic.
The report says 65.7% of food bank visitors cite social assistance as their main source of income. There have also been 44 percent more employed people with access to food banks in the past four years.
“As these numbers continue to rise, it really makes us fear that the income is not up to what everyone needs to pay for the most basic cost of living,” said Stewart.
“Things are becoming more and more inaccessible to everyone.”
Paying for housing means no financial cushion
Before the pandemic, people were already living with the extreme stress that comes with poverty, dollar depletion and the potential inability to make ends meet, Stewart said.
About 86 percent of food bank visitors are renters of rental or social housing and spend most of their monthly income on housing. Feed Ontario notes that this makes it nearly impossible for low-income people to have savings or a “financial cushion” to make up for losses in an emergency.
Coupled with a year that sparked more anxiety and called for additional expenses – like PPE, staying home for health reasons and the loss of social services – “hundreds of thousands of people” could not afford to meet their basic needs.
The top three reasons people skipped meals were to help pay rent, utilities, and phone or internet bills, according to the report.
“I think it’s extremely problematic. No one should have to make these choices. They are choices that anyone can’t make,” said Stewart.
In the first two months, access to food and meal support also became the main reason people called Ontario 211 – the social and community service helpline.
Stewart said this may have been due to fear that these essential services could be shut down.
But food banks have been working around the clock, she said, with limited resources and staff to meet pandemic guidelines. None have stopped.
They implemented new emergency food support programs and increased the amount of food provided to reduce the number of visits. Some have also set up a home delivery service and opened a drive-thru service.
Here’s a look at the increased demand in different centers across the province after the pandemic hit:
- The Daily Bread Food Bank in the GTA served nearly 20,000 people per week.
- The Mississauga Food Bank saw a 120% increase in the number of new users.
- The Ottawa Food Bank has received 400% more calls from people in need of food assistance.
- The Windsor Unemployed Assistance Center had double the number of households with access to its services.
- The Salvation Army in Owen Sound saw more than 400 people in the first nine days of the pandemic, which is close to the number of people it would serve in a month.
- Community Care West Niagara in Lincoln has seen a 20 percent increase in the number of people using its services.
- A Sudbury food bank agency has seen a 150% increase in the number of people accessing emergency food assistance.
Eviction, financial challenges
In September alone, there were 10% more visits to food banks compared to the same time last year.
When Feed Ontario surveyed about 200 food bank visitors in September, it found that one in two food bank visitors said they feared eviction or mortgage default in the next two to six months. .
One participant said: “Everything is difficult. Paying rent is difficult, going to the doctor is difficult, accessing groceries and food is difficult. Everything is so much more difficult now.
Over 90% were also facing extreme financial challenges as a result of the pandemic and were taking on a significant amount of debt. Ninety-three percent of respondents borrowed money from friends and family, used payday loans, or used a credit card to pay bills.
While Feed Ontario does not collect data related to race, immigration, or refugee status, it does note that blacks and Indigenous people are disproportionately affected by poverty and food insecurity, and are three times more likely to be food insecure than non-racialized households.
Support from the provincial and federal governments helped food banks cope with a first wave at the onset of the pandemic, Stewart said. But as those supports came to a halt throughout the summer and into the fall, the numbers rose again.
The supports have shown that “investing in personal income supports can provide this essential safety net that people need,” she said.
Stewart pointed to the 2008 recession when food bank use increased by nearly 30 percent in two years.
“It never fell back,” she said, adding that the network was “quite scared” that without these supports, food bank use would increase “exponentially” over the next few months.
“While food banks do their best with very little to meet the needs of their communities and do an incredible job, they are not a substitute for good public policy,” she said. “We are not a solution to poverty.
Feed Ontario says it is calling on the provincial government to:
- Provide immediate support to low-income families, including developing a rent relief or payment program for tenants facing rent arrears or eviction.
- Restore emergency benefit for social assistance recipients.
- Align Ontario’s social assistance rates with the national standard set by the PCU.
- Develop stricter labor laws and policies, such as restoring paid sick leave and quality jobs with living wages.