Kitchener-Waterloo·Sounds of the season

'Hunger can happen to anyone at any time' says The Food Bank of Waterloo Region's CEO

The Food Bank of Waterloo region has seen an increase in the number of people accessing their services. Nearly one in five people who need help are either employed or recently employed, new numbers show.

Report shows 19% of people accessing region’s food bank are employed or recently employed

The Food Bank of Waterloo Region has seen an increase in people needing their services during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Amanda Grant/CBC)

Nearly one in five people who accessed The Food Bank of Waterloo Region in recent months have been employed in some way, new numbers show.

The people were either employed full-time or part-time, or had recently been employed and were accessing employment insurance.

"I think that says a lot about the cost of living in this community. We know that our rents are high, some of the highest in the province. We've heard lots of stories and lots of conversation about rising food prices," Wendi Campbell, CEO of The Food Bank of Waterloo Region, said in an interview.

"When you add on all of the pieces to somebody's monthly budget, sometimes in order to make ends meet, it's the food piece of the puzzle that is the piece where our community food assistance network can help."

First-time visits spike

The food bank also saw the number of households needing food more than triple in April of this year compared to a year earlier.

In April 2019, there were 182 unique households who accessed the food bank. This year, that number rose to 604.

Campbell said sometimes, people only need help from the food bank for the short term before they get back on their feet. 

"Hunger can happen to anyone at any time on any street," Campbell said.

Feed Ontario released a report last week looking at food bank use across the province. It found the number of first-time food bank visitors spiked by 26.5 per cent during the first four months of the pandemic.

The report says 65.7 per cent of food bank visitors cite social assistance as their primary source of income. There has also been 44 per cent more employed people accessing food banks over the past four years. 

Feed Ontario's executive director Carolyn Stewart says it's "extremely concerning" to see the rise in people needing to access food banks.

She echoed Campbell's comments: "Things are becoming increasingly out of reach for everyone."

"As these numbers continue to grow, it really creates concerns for us that the income is not keeping up with what everyone needs to afford their most basic cost of living," Stewart said. 

Wendi Campbell is CEO of the Food Bank of Waterloo Region. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Long-term planning

Campbell says the food bank has been planning non-stop during the pandemic and that includes working with the provincial and federal government, Food Banks Canada and Feed Ontario.

The government benefits for people early in the pandemic were "a game changer" and helped flatten the curve of people who needed to access their food banks, Campbell said.

Now, there's long-term planning in the works because the effects of the pandemic will carry on long after a vaccine is found and administered.

"The social safety net is weak and when people fall, there's not a lot there right now," Campbell said.

"We need to make sure that we have proper systems and supports, not only at the local level, but working with out federal and provincial partners to work on social assistance and work on things like paid sick days, and equal pay for equal work and really good quality jobs that are going to pay a living wage," she said.

"If 19 per cent of the families who are accessing services in our community are employed, it says a lot about livable wages and livable wages that help a family make ends meet, and it's just not there for some."

CBC K-W's annual Sounds of the Season campaign raises food and funds for The Food Bank of Waterloo Region.


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