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Ontario food banks fear rising demand will outpace supply, decades after they were deemed temporary

Food banks started in Canada in the early 1980s as a temporary response to the recession. Over 40 years later, they're more important than ever, with a new report by Feed Ontario saying the number of people seeking help and the number of visits are only rising.

'The need just continues to grow,' says Carolyn Stewart of Feed Ontario, which released its new Hunger Report

Volunteers sort through items donated by the public in the warehouse of the Food Bank of Waterloo Region. The latest Hunger Report from Feed Ontario was released Monday, and says food banks are seeing increased demand, but fewer donations. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

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.

So it's disheartening to Carolyn Stewart, executive director of Feed Ontario, that food banks are not only still needed, but demand is growing at an incredible rate.

"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.

"But on top of that, that the changes and disinvestments that we've made in social assistance programs and housing, and that today's quality of employment, are just making it increasingly inaccessible for people to have a standard quality of living here in Ontario."

How far does a dollar go?

One dollar "is not stretching as far" right now, she said.

"People are doing their very best, but it's virtually impossible to afford everything, and so people are having to turn to food banks for help. And as much as food banks are the first people to say they wish we didn't have to exist and we would gladly close our doors if the need was not there, the need just continues to grow."

Portrait of woman
Carolyn Stewart, executive director of Feed Ontario, says this year's Hunger Report shows demand for food banks continues to rise, not just from pandemic recovery or inflation. (Feed Ontario)

Feed Ontario, an organization made up of 1,200 partner food banks, released its most recent Hunger Report on Monday, and it doesn't mince words about the growing need in this province.

Between April 1, 2021, and March 31, 2022, more than 587,000 people in Ontario accessed a food bank, with more than 4.3 million visits.

"This marks a 15 per cent increase and 42 per cent increase respectively over the last two years and the sixth consecutive year that food bank use has risen," the report says.

"While it was initially hoped that rapidly escalating food bank use was the result of an acute set of circumstances related to the COVID-19 pandemic, more than three years later, food bank use has only continued to increase."

WATCH | Windsor residents talk about the rise in food bank usage:

Windsor residents talk about the rise food bank usage

3 months ago
Duration 1:15
Windsor residents talk about why the use of food banks has never been higher and what the implications are of rising inflation and other causes of increased food bank reliance.

Concerns that need will outpace supply

The Hunger Report notes that in the first nine months of 2022, the number of people accessing food banks increased 24 per cent over the same time period in 2021.

Of those, one in three people was seeking help from the local food bank for the first time.

It's worrisome, Stewart said, because the rising costs are also having an impact on donations. Shelves once stocked for two or three months now are depleted within two or three weeks.

"There is concern out there that the demand will outpace capacity," Stewart said. "And then what?"

That concern is echoed in the report: "While food banks are working hard to meet this growing demand, their resources are finite and there is concern that the need could outpace the capacity of the provincial food bank network."

It's something the Windsor-Essex area is seeing.

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."

'Going through food at a double rate'

Ro Mullen is executive director of the Inner City Home in Sudbury, which serves 1,200 households on average each month and is one of 44 agencies under the Sudbury Food Bank umbrella.

"We're going through food at a double rate to what we were used to, and so there are many times that we run out of particular items," she said.

Mullen said they've been able to continue to feed those in need thanks to the generosity of people in the city.

"We just ran out of pasta sauce unexpectedly. We thought we had enough to go through the week, but we didn't. So we called Sudbury Food Bank and said, 'Hey, can you help us out?' And they gave us two boxes of pasta sauce just like that," she said.

"We put out an ad on Facebook saying that we needed school snacks, and fresh fruit and vegetables earlier in the week, and we've had several people just show up with a bag of carrots or a bag of apples, and so the community's been really fantastic."

The problems: Pandemic, inflation, policies

The Feed Ontario Hunger Report isn't surprising for those who work or volunteer with food banks. In October, Food Banks Canada released a similar report that showed a record number of people used food banks across the country in the past year.

Man sits in forklift facing large shelving units where food has been stored.
A worker inside the Edmonton Food Bank uses a forklift to move items in the facility. The Edmonton Food Bank was the first in Canada. A group of volunteers started talking about how to help agencies in the inner city with meal and snack programs in April 1980. The Edmonton's Food Bank was officially incorporated on Jan. 16, 1981. (David Bajer/CBC)

While the global pandemic and rising inflation have an "undeniable role" in the increased use of food banks, the Feed Ontario Hunger Report says there are other longstanding issues. 

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 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 have 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.

'They just can't make it'

The report said it's no longer good enough to have just a full-time job to pay all the bills.

Dan Erwin is with Partners for Mission in Kingston, which has operated since 1984 and provides food hampers. He said people with jobs are also turning to them for food.

"We're seeing new faces. They're working. They're trying to get through, but they just can't make it," Erwin said.

"Inflation's impacting everyone. Prior to 2020 and COVID-19, there were many who were struggling but they were getting by. And now, when you add a couple of years of heavy inflation, now they're kind of under water."

He said he doesn't know what 2023 will bring, but the possibilities are on his mind.

"I'm trying to find a crystal ball because I was completely out to lunch for this year. We did really good planning on food costs because of some great advice from Food Banks Canada and Feed Ontario … but I totally missed on our demand. I never anticipated we'd be over 18 per cent at this point," he said.

If you've ever had a feeling of hunger, it's a deep pain. ... We wouldn't be able to live day to day if we didn't have the assistance from the food bank.- Kimberly Mitchell

Erin Kewaquom co-ordinates the food bank in Saugeen First Nation, a small reserve on the shores of Lake Huron. Before the pandemic, they would see between 80 and 100 clients each month. That's risen to 130 people per month.

Kewaquom said they're able to meet the demand right now because of donations through the community, funding from the band office and other grants. 

The food bank buys perishables — such as milk, cheese, bread, and fruit and vegetables — from a nearby grocery store. But Kewaquom said they've noticed they're spending up to $600 every two weeks now, up from $450 a few months ago. 

The rising cost of food and other items "does have a huge impact on how much we can buy."

She knows Christmas can be a tough time for many in the community, but it's the months after the holidays that can be bleak.

"In January and February, because I know Christmas is a very tight time for budgets for families, we do allow two accesses [to the food bank] per month just to help offset all the costs," she said.

Chris Peacock, executive director of the Sharing Place Food Centre in Orillia, said they've seen a significant increase of new faces. Last month, 140 new people sought help. That's up from the usual 30 to 40 new people a month the centre has seen previously.

He said it's often "people that did not know that they were going to be in the position that they are … all of sudden they realize, 'Wow, I can't afford food,' and they're in a very difficult position."

Rent vs. food

Three years ago, Kimberly Mitchell and her husband lived in the Toronto suburb of North York, but they weren't able to afford rent and their other bills, so they had to move. She told CBC Toronto they had to rely on shelters, food banks and church food programs to survive.

"If you've ever had a feeling of hunger, it's a deep pain," Mitchell said. "It's not a comfortable feeling."

They now live in Toronto and make ends meet with the help of the Ontario Disability Support Program and food banks.

"We wouldn't be able to live day to day if we didn't have the assistance from the food bank," she said.

Similar stories are being heard at other food banks.

Someone in a mask boxes food in a warehouse.
A volunteer fills boxes with donated food at the Ottawa Food Bank warehouse. In its 2020-2021 year-in-review report, the food bank said that year, it delivered more food and resources to people in the community than ever before in its 37 year history. (Julie Gordon/Reuters)

On Friday, The Food Bank of Waterloo Region released its community impact report. It said between July 1, 2021, and June 30, 2022, one in 14 households required emergency food assistance. That's up from one in 20 in the same time period a year earlier.

Kim Wilhelm, the food bank's interim executive director, said the report paints a grim picture of just how many people in the community are food insecure.

"The cost of living has never been higher and that is forcing people to choose between paying rent or a mortgage, putting gas in their car to get to work, or putting food on the table," Wilhelm said in a release.

The Hamilton Food Share said the city has the second highest per-capita food bank access in the province. In the group's own hunger report, it found 62 per cent of people who took a survey indicated they were able to pay rent because they could use the food bank.

The report asked, "Would you be at risk of losing your housing if you needed to purchase the food received from the food bank?" Almost half — 46 per cent — said yes.

What can be done

The Hunger Report outlines four areas needing improvement:

  • Quality of work.
  • Social assistance.
  • Social housing.
  • Put people at the centre of policy and program design.

"We believe that the government agrees with our vision of a hunger-free Ontario and so we hope that they are interested in learning more," Stewart said.

"We also want everyone in the community to learn more about food insecurity — why their neighbours are going hungry and what they can do to help make change," she added.

"We encourage them to go speak to their local representatives, whether that be city councillors, mayors, MPPs ... and let them know that this is an important issue."

Allison Hill at the Thunder Bay Food Banks said in her city, the organization that started "as a stopgap measure" has become part of the "fabric of our community."

She said it raises the question: Why?

"What is wrong in our society and the public policy that food banks are not only necessary, but growing, the need is growing every year? I would love to see us go out of business," Hill said.

"The Thunder Bay Food Bank is so appreciative of the community support that we get and we couldn't do it without the community support, but we really hope that someday the government and public policy and systems are in place that we won't be needed."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kate Bueckert

Reporter/Editor

Kate has been covering issues in southern Ontario for more than 15 years. She currently works for CBC Kitchener-Waterloo. Email: kate.bueckert@cbc.ca

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