Ontario food bank usage on the rise, even before pandemic pressure: report
Food bank usage increased across Ontario in the year leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new report. Then came another surge in demand as people struggled with unemployment, closings and lost income during the pandemic.
Feed Ontario’s annual hunger report, released Monday, analyzes blackboard usage across the province, makes recommendations, and also examines the impact of the pandemic on blackboards and vulnerable populations.
After a year of people visiting 3.2 million food banks, the number of first-time table-goers rose 26.5 percent in the first four months of the pandemic, the report said.
“This means we are seeing whole new people who have never come to our service and those who have already used our services face more difficulties in life than they have already faced,” said Executive Director Carolyn Stewart. “It is extremely worrying for us.”
Before the pandemic
Between April 1, 2019 and March 31, 2020, the report said that 537,575 people accessed blackboards – a 5.3 percent increase over the previous year – and that a third of those visitors were children.
The total number of visits was 3,282,500, 7.3 percent more than in the previous year.
Feed Ontario cites the lack of affordable housing, inadequate welfare programs and an increase in precarious employment (such as part-time and casual work) as the top three reasons for using blackboards.
Ontario also has the highest number of minimum wage workers in the country, Stewart added, noting that precarious work has been hard hit by the pandemic.
According to the report, 65.7 percent of Tafel visitors cite welfare as their main source of income. In addition, in the past four years, 44 percent more workers have had access to blackboards.
“As these numbers keep rising, it really gives us concern that income is not keeping pace with what everyone needs to cover their most basic living expenses,” said Stewart.
“Things are becoming more and more inaccessible for everyone.”
Paying for housing does not mean a financial cushion
Before the pandemic, people were already living with the extreme stress of living in poverty, blowing the dollars and possibly not being able to make ends meet, Stewart said.
Around 86 percent of the people who go to the Tafel are renters of rented 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 emergency situations.
Coupled with a year that raised further concerns and required additional expenses – such as PPE, staying home for health reasons, and losing social services – “hundreds of thousands of people” were without the means to meet basic needs.
The three most common reasons people would skip meals were to be able to afford rent, utility bills, and phone or internet bills, the report said.
“I think it’s extremely problematic. Nobody should have to make these decisions. These are impossible decisions that everyone has to make,” said Stewart.
For the first two months, access to food and meals also became the main reason people called Ontario 211 – the community and social services hotline.
Stewart said this may have been out of fear that these essential services would be shut down.
But blackboards had been working around the clock, she said, with limited resources and staff to comply with pandemic guidelines. None is closed.
They introduced new grocery emergency programs and increased the amount of food provided to reduce the number of visits. Some have also set up home delivery services and opened a drive-thru service.
Here’s a look at how demand increased at various centers across the province following the pandemic outbreak:
- The Daily Bread Food Bank in the GTA catered for nearly 20,000 people a week.
- Mississauga Food Bank saw first-time users increase by 120 percent.
- The Ottawa Food Bank received 400 percent more calls from people in need of food aid.
- The Windsor unemployment center had twice as many households using its services.
- The Owen Sound Salvation Army saw over 400 people in the first nine days of the pandemic, which is roughly the number it would care for in a month.
- Community Care West Niagara in Lincoln saw the number of people using their services increase by 20 percent.
- A Sudbury Food Bank agency saw a 150 percent increase in the number of people receiving access to emergency food aid.
Eviction, financial challenges
In September alone there were 10 percent more visits to food banks compared to the same period in the previous year.
When Feed Ontario surveyed around 200 panelists in September, it found that one in two panelists said they were concerned that they might face an eviction or default on their mortgage in the next two to six months.
One participant said: “Everything is difficult. Paying rent is difficult, going to the doctor is difficult, getting groceries and meals is difficult. Everything is so much more difficult now. “
Over 90 percent also faced extreme financial challenges due to the pandemic and took on significant debt. Ninety-three percent of respondents borrowed money from friends and family, took out payday loans, or used a credit card to pay bills.
Although Feed Ontario does not collect data on race, immigration, or refugee status, it finds that black and indigenous people are disproportionately affected by poverty and food insecurity, and are three times more likely to be food insecure than non-racial households.
Support from provincial and federal governments helped food banks cope with an initial surge at the start of the pandemic, Stewart said. But as these supports declined over the summer and into the fall, the numbers have risen again.
The support showed that “Investing in income support for individuals can provide the essential safety net people need,” she said.
Stewart pointed to the 2008 recession that saw food bank usage increase nearly 30 percent in two years.
“It never went back,” she said, adding that the network was “fairly concerned” that without this support, food bank usage will “grow exponentially” in the months ahead.
“While the boards do their best 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 urges the provincial government to:
- Provide immediate support to low-income families, including developing a rent reduction or payment program for tenants facing rent arrears or an eviction.
- Put the emergency money back on welfare recipients.
- Align Ontario welfare rates with the national standard of the CERB.
- Develop stricter labor laws and guidelines, such as: B. the reinstatement of paid sick days and high-quality jobs with a bearable wage.