Thanksgiving shines a light on food and hunger

This weekend brings Thanksgiving and a Bank Holiday Monday, both reasons to celebrate.

That is not the case for all, however, as it is the best time for the Food Bank of Waterloo Region and its affiliated agencies like Woolwich Community Services, trying to keep pantries full from now until Christmas, a time when the demand is increasing.

As it did last Christmas, this one too faces the added hurdle of the pandemic, which prevents many traditional food promotions and other food-gathering opportunities.

Last year, 33,355 people in the region needed food aid, more than a third of whom were children.

The pandemic has seen a dramatic surge in demand, much of it from people seeking food aid for the first time.

Blackboard use in Ontario increased even before COVID-19: Between April 1, 2019 and March 31, 2020, 537,575 people across Ontario accessed blackboards (up 5.3 percent year-over-year) and visited more 3,282,500 times (plus 7.3 percent compared to the previous year). With the outbreak of COVID-19, the blackboards saw a surge in demand: Ontario’s blackboards saw a 26 percent increase in first-time visitors between March and June 2020.

The figures show that while a large percentage of those in need receive social assistance, a significant number are in employment. In the Waterloo area, 16 percent work in EI (recently employed) with another 3 percent, 31 percent receive social assistance and 24 percent receive disability benefits.

Also following the trend, single singles are the fastest growing user segment. Of those who used services in the Waterloo area, single-person households rose from 27 percent of those who needed food aid in 2013 to 50 percent today.

At the provincial level, Feed Ontario data shows that the main reasons behind the continued growth in food banking use are inadequate social safety nets, precarious employment, and unaffordable housing. While the province’s food banking network does not collect data on race, Feed Ontario recognizes that black and indigenous people are disproportionately affected by poverty and food insecurity, as well as the role systemic racism and inequality play in creating barriers to opportunity that are otherwise accessible to most Canadians.

According to the provincial report, the number of working or newly hired Ontarians first receiving food aid is 12.8 percent. This number was significantly higher in the Waterloo region at 19 percent, compared to 18 percent in the same period in 2019.

Although this spike was driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, other factors – like the Waterloo area’s high cost of living, steadily rising food prices, and the growing gap in social safety nets – continue to play a role in being able to afford food, says Waterloo Region Food Bank.

People from many different backgrounds in the Waterloo region depend on emergency food aid. Around 19 percent of those who are dependent on emergency aid are working poor, including full-time or part-time employees or employed people. Others get their primary income from Ontario Works (31 percent), Ontario Disability Support (23 percent), Old Age Pension (seven percent), Student Loans (one percent), Disability (one percent), while eight percent have no income and 10 percent of the income Participants are unknown.

While demand is highest in the cities, the rural communities are no exception: Woolwich Community Services, which looks after Woolwich and part of Wellesley, is facing the same need to replenish its shelves. Surrendering a few things is an easy task. Then enjoy the rest of the long weekend knowing that there are many things to be thankful for.

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