Food bank use pushed by costly housing, social assistance shortfall: report
'If there’s even one person who’s in need of our services, that’s far too many'
The high cost of housing combined with insufficient social assistance means nearly half a million Ontarians needed to use a food bank last year, a new report says.
The 2017 Hunger Report from the Ontario Association of Food Banks released Monday shows 499,415 individuals used a food bank between April 1, 2016 and March 31 of this year.
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A third of those who needed to turn to the food bank are children.
The numbers are up three per cent over previous years, the association's executive director Carolyn Stewart told CBC.
"The numbers are always staggering," she said.
"For us, if there's even one person who's in need of our services, that's far too many. So to know that almost half a million Ontarians had to visit a food bank last year is very concerning."
High housing costs
The report noted the average cost of a one-bedroom apartment would cost more than 100 per cent of the income received by someone receiving Ontario Works benefits, in eight of 10 sample communities.
"It's virtually impossible for them to be able to afford rent and then be able to afford all the other basic necessities," Stewart said.
"People are having a lot of challenges to make ends meet, so it's really driving people to really need the food bank."
Lack of affordable housing hurts more than a family's budget, said Stacy Elia, executive director of the Grimsby Benevolent Fund in Grimsby, Ont.
There's many people walking a very fine between their current situation and extreme food insecurity.- Carolyn Stewart, executive director of the Ontario Association of Food Banks
"By offering housing support alongside healthy, nutritional choices, including fresh fruit and vegetables, bread and dairy products, we are able to contribute to increasing the quality of life in our community," she said.
Wendi Campbell, executive director of The Food Bank of Waterloo Region, said not having a safe and affordable place creates a ripple effect.
"What impact does that have on your ability to figure out what's going on in your life and what's next, whether it be looking for a job or dealing with a family crisis, you need that stability around you," Campbell said.
"Sometimes that food program support is the one thing that's constant and consistent and welcoming."
'Walking a fine line'
The report also found 68 per cent of those going to food banks said their primary source of income was social assistance.
Stewart said social assistance rates have been "remaining stagnant" since the 1990s, making it impossible for people who rely on it to pay more for housing and have money left at the end of the month.
The report noted 45 per cent of food bank clients have less than $100 left each month after they pay for basic expenses.
Some of the people using the food bank – about 30 per cent – only used it once a year, the report said.
Stewart said this shouldn't be seen as them needing help just once – it's more likely they're struggling and the food bank was a last resort.
"People are trying to find other ways to address their food insecurity so whether that's using their savings, skipping meals, trying to find other services before accessing the food bank, which means there's many people walking a very fine between their current situation and extreme food insecurity," she said.
Understand food bank needs
The national housing strategy announced by the federal government last week is a great step forward to helping people and Stewart said she hopes the province considers some of the key recommendations from another report called the Income Security: A Roadmap for Change that suggests large increases to social assistance rates and transforming the system itself.
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As for what individuals can do, Stewart said they recommend four things: Advocate, educate, donate and volunteer.
She said $1 can help provide three meals through a food bank program and people should learn what is highest on the list of needs for their local food bank – don't assume it's the always-popular donation of peanut butter.
And she said the public should learn more about how an area's food bank operates to see if there are other ways to help.
"By really learning about your community, you can make a difference," she said.