Number of first-time food bank users in Sudbury "through the roof"

Ontario’s annual Hunger Report is out and the changing nature of those using food banks is a reminder that a job is increasingly no protection against hunger. Feed Ontario, formerly the Ontario Association of Food Banks, says in its 2019 Hunger Report there’s been a 27 per cent increase over three years in the number of working poor seeking help from food banks.

Proportion of working poor and seniors behind jump in first-time users

Dan Xilon is the executive director of the Sudbury Food Bank. (Angela Gemmill/CBC)

Ontario's annual Hunger Report is out and the numbers are a reminder that a job is increasingly less of a protection against hunger.

Feed Ontario, formerly the Ontario Association of Food Banks, says in its 2019 Hunger Report there's been a 27 per cent increase over three years in the number of working poor seeking help from food banks.

In Sudbury, Pastor Brad Hale runs the Elgin Street Mission, a soup kitchen that serves 220 meals a day which is almost double the number, 120, served three years ago.

Hale, who was once homeless and a drug user, says it pains him  when someone asks for an extra piece of toast and he has to tell them to wait until everyone is served to make sure there is enough.

Brad Hale is the chaplain and director of the Elgin Street Mission in Sudbury. (Markus Schwabe/CBC)

Hale knows the devastation of hunger.

"It's like this pit that's there. It's like having a bucket and having a  hole in the bottom of the bucket and you're pouring water as quick as you can pour it in and it's just going through. You eat but you never feel like you are satisfied. It's just never enough," he says.

He says he has noticed an increase in people with jobs using the soup kitchen.

Hale says volunteers will even pack a lunch for those clients to take to the job, because it's easier to work and maintain employment without dealing with hunger pangs.

The 2019 Hunger Report identifies a rise in precarious work , changes to Ontario's labour laws, and insufficient support through worker and social assistance programs as key contributors to the emerging trend.

It's one that has been noticed at the food bank in Sudbury as well.

Executive Director Dan Xilon says the same number of people, about 10,000, used the service this year over last year, but there have been other changes.

"We've never had as many first-time users of food banks, in, like forever. First-time users are through the roof, like these people who have never been to a food bank in their life. And that first-time user number, is made up of seniors and people who are working," says Xilon.

He says the numbers show the percentage of working people is up to 14, over 11 last year.

Xilon says it's a stark contrast to the advice so many have received growing up that working hard and getting a job means everything will be all right, 

The 2019 Hunger report reveals that 48 percent of minimum wage workers are 25 years or older with one in three holding a post-secondary education.

What shocks Xilon even more than the rise in the working poor using food banks, is that the number of seniors using the food bank has doubled over the past three years.

He says they now make up 14 percent of users in Sudbury.

It hits home for him.

"Let me give you an example. My mom's pension was about 1,100 dollars a month. And that's after 30 years of nursing. So that's like, wow, are you kidding me?"

Xilon says OHIP covers a lot less, user fees are higher, many seniors have to rent and those costs rise while their income stays the same, so they have turn to the food bank to supplement their budget.

"It just breaks my heart when somebody who has given 30 35 years to our communities, or to our businesses, comes to the food banks, because, I mean they just they just don't deserve that. I'm sorry."

Xilon says he finds no  fault with the people trying to make ends meet by using the food bank.

He says more government support would help.

He'd like to see the restoration of the Basic Income pilot project.

The provincial  Progressive Conservative government eliminated the program last March.

It provided payments to 4,000 low-income people in communities including Hamilton, Brantford, Thunder Bay and Lindsay. 

Single participants received up to $16,989 a year while couples received up to $24,027.

"Something along those lines has to definitely be looked at, at some point, and not in ten years. I mean, like, now," says Xilon.