Toronto food bank says social assistance reform could lead to more struggling clients

The latest annual report by the city's largest food bank raises concerns that a proposed overhaul of Ontario's social assistance system will cause unmanageable stress on Toronto's food banks and the people who rely on them.

New report from Daily Bread shows growing demand in inner suburbs like Scarborough and Etobicoke

The Daily Bread Food Bank has recorded a 14 per cent increase in demand since 2008. (Joe Fiorino/CBC)

There are concerns that a proposed overhaul of Ontario's social assistance system will cause unmanageable stress on Toronto's food banks — and the people who rely on them.

The Progressive Conservatives are expected to announce a plan to reform the system next week. The changes will come after a 100-day review by the government to develop what it calls a "sustainable social assistance program."

Employees at Toronto's Daily Bread Food Bank, the largest food bank in Canada, fear the changes will lead to a greater reliance on their services.

"I think we're going to see [clients] struggling more," said Sangye Martin, a social service worker and food bank employee for the past four years.

"They're used to this happening, and people just kind of wait to see what the next hit is going to be," added Martin, who is also a former food bank client.

'I’m not seeing it letting up. A lot of people are still struggling,' said food bank employee Sangye Martin. (Joe Fiorino/CBC)

Earlier this year, the Ford government cut the expected three per cent increase in social assistance in half and announced plans to cancel a universal basic income pilot project. 

This month, it also introduced legislation to freeze minimum wage at $14, cancelling a planned increase to $15 in January.

"We're going to hit the pause button on the previous government's patchwork system and replace it with a system that helps stabilize people in need and support them to succeed," said Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod in July. 

In the organization's annual Who's Hungry report, which was released Wednesday, the Daily Bread Food Bank criticized those early moves.

"We were disappointed with the first steps that the minister announced in kicking of the review, scaling back increases to rates and pausing changes that would make the system easier to navigate," reads the report.

The report also highlights the immense reliance on social assistance among food bank users.

Out of more than 1,300 people surveyed, the Daily Bread found that two out of three food bank clients already rely on social assistance as their primary source of income, meaning that reductions could see more people going hungry.

"The current system of social assistance is failing to meet the basic needs of keeping people from hunger," reads the report.

While the food bank's report raises concerns, its leaders are waiting until the official plan is released before passing judgment. 

"We're fully confident that they've done a full assessment and looked at the full picture," said Sarah Kiriliuk, director of communications for Daily Bread Food Bank.

Lisa Macleod says the new system will help more people get back to work while supporting those with disabilities. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Big demand in Toronto's inner suburbs

The overall number of food bank clients has also increased by 14 per cent since the recession in 2008.

Meanwhile, the total number of Ontarians receiving social assistance has climbed by 55 per cent over the past 15 years.

"We've seen immense economic prosperity in the city of Toronto, and that's been mirrored by a huge increase in food bank use," Kiriliuk told CBC Toronto.

Daily Bread has found that a disproportionate number of clients are now accessing the food bank in Toronto's inner suburbs, especially Etobicoke and Scarborough.

In Etobicoke, food bank use had jumped by 170 per cent over the past 10 years, while Scarborough clients have increased by 86 per cent over the same time span. These areas have fewer food banks than downtown Toronto, making it hard to meet demand, the food bank says.

While a definitive explanation has not been reached, Kiriliuk says rising housing prices may be contributing to that growing demand in the inner suburbs, since more low-income residents are being priced out of the city's core.

While there are concerns about a shakeup of existing programs, the survey also found that overall, food bank use decreased by 4.7 per cent in the last year.

The reasons behind that decrease are also being analyzed, but the food bank believes the $14 per hour minimum wage hike may be behind the reduction.

"We're hypothesizing right now that that has something to do with the increase in minimum wage, but we want to do more research and dig into that," Kiriliuk said.