Toronto

Toronto food banks see big increase in demand amid COVID-19 pandemic

Food bank visits in Toronto have increased significantly this year since the pandemic began, by 22 per cent in June to 51 per cent in August compared to the previous year, a new report shows.

2021 likely to have most food bank visits ever recorded in Toronto, new report says

Volunteers with the Daily Bread Food Bank are seen preparing food for distribution in August amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Food bank visits in Toronto have increased significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, a new report says.

Use in June, for instance, was up 22 per cent over the same month last year. In August, meanwhile, visits were up 51 per cent over the same period last year, the report found.

But the report, Who's Hungry — Beyond COVID-19: Building a Future Without Poverty, says the rise of food insecurity in the city is not just a COVID-19 issue.

Instead, the Daily Bread Food Bank and the North York Harvest Food Bank, co-authors of the report, say the pandemic has exacerbated the financial situations of many people in Toronto — resulting in food bank use in the city reaching an all-time high.

"Additional government action is needed to prevent skyrocketing food bank use during COVID-19 from becoming another long-term crisis," the food banks said in a news release.

Even prior to the government shutdown in March, a sharp increase of visits to food banks was recorded.

Food bank use rose 5% before pandemic in GTA

The report says there were close to one million visits to food banks in Toronto between April 1, 2019 and March 31, 2020.

It predicts this year will have the highest number of food bank visits ever recorded in the city.

"While we saw the line-ups increase, we know that food insecurity is not just a COVID-19 issue," the report reads.

"In fact, before the impacts of the pandemic were even felt, food bank visits in Toronto had climbed back to the same level as the peak following the 2008-09 financial crisis."

Prior to COVID-19, food bank use rose five per cent in the Greater Toronto Area in the last fiscal year, according to the report.

Visits to Toronto food banks increased by 51 percent in August over the same period last year, according to the Daily Bread Food Bank's annual report. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Respondents skipping meals to pay for rent, bills 

According to the report, survey respondents had a median adjusted income of $892,which is only half of Toronto's Market Basket Measure (MBM), Canada's official poverty line.

"Canadians are not in poverty simply because they have 'fallen through the cracks,'" it said. "Instead, our income security system sets a low floor, one that provides poverty incomes."

The report also highlighted that food insecurity, for many households, is caused in part by having to pay for other basic living necessities, similar to last year's findings.

Sixty-seven per cent of those who responded to the survey reported skipping a meal to pay for other necessities.

More than half say they had to skip a meal to pay for rent, while others skipped meals to pay for transportation or phone and Internet bills.

The report noted that the most commonly used strategy involved relying on debt, whether it be credit card loans or borrowing from family and friends.

"Even after visiting a food bank, which typically provides approximately three days worth of food, 85 per cent of respondents reported that they did not always have enough food to eat. As a result, 43 per cent went hungry at least once a week."

"Even after visiting a food bank, which typically provides approximately three days worth of food, 85 per cent of respondents reported that they did not always have enough food to eat," the report reads. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

In October, the Daily Bread Food Bank was grappling with excessive demand. It saw an increase in clients of more than 200 per cent from 10,000 at this time last year to 25,000 this year. 

The report calls on the federal government to take additional action to support households experiencing food insecurity.

"Emergency policy responses to COVID-19, like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), helped prevent thousands of Canadians from falling into poverty, but deep poverty was already the reality for the vast majority of food bank clients," it reads.

The inequities the crisis has highlighted have deep roots that span well beyond the current crisis.- Who's Hungry 2020 Report

It also calls on the provincial government to help prevent evictions and provide immediate and long-term rent relief. It also calls for an increase in affordable housing and health benefits for low-income communities, as well as a minimum wage raise.

"If there is a lesson to be learned from COVID-19, it is that people's vulnerabilities are shaped by their circumstances," it reads. "The inequities the crisis has highlighted have deep roots that span well beyond the current crisis."

The food bank's number of new clients has seen an increase of more than 200 per cent, from 10,000 at this time last year to 25,000 this year. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The Daily Break Food Bank surveys food bank use every year to track trends and this year it partnered with North York Harvest Food Bank.

Its annual survey was scheduled to be conducted from the beginning of March through the end of April at 47 Daily Bread Food Bank locations and North York Harvest member agency food banks. 

The food banks pulled information from a database called Link2Feed to track the number of visits. But, as a result of COVID-19, the food bank's data collection was halted mid-March. 

The survey findings of the report reflect only the surveys completed between March 2 to March 13, 2020. In total, 397 surveys were collected from 21 agencies and 387 were deemed sufficiently completed to be included in the analysis. 

The report also notes that due to the considerably smaller sample size to previous years as a result of the pandemic, "caution should be applied" when making comparisons to previous years' findings.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sara Jabakhanji

Reporter/Editor

Sara Jabakhanji is a reporter with CBC News and has chased stories for the CBC across the province of Ontario in Toronto, Ottawa and London. She was born in Damascus, Syria and is fluent in Arabic. Reach her at: sara.jabakhanji@cbc.ca

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