Food bank map helps politicians see hunger in their own backyard

Mapping food bank use by electoral ridings will help politicians and policy-makers see exactly where people who use such social supports live. In Toronto, food bank clients are highly concentrated in the inner suburbs and a pocket right in the heart of the city.

Feed Ontario's new interactive map shows food bank use riding by riding

Volunteers at the Daily Bread Food Bank sort through supplies, which will be distributed to those in need. (Adrian Cheung/CBC)

An interactive map launched Wednesday by Feed Ontario shows food bank usage across the province broken down by electoral riding to show politicians what challenges their constituents face.

Amanda King, interim executive director of Feed Ontario, which was formerly known as the Ontario Association of Food Banks, says the map is the first of its kind in Canada.

"We're often asked by elected officials and policy-makers about the statistics particular to their riding, which is something we hadn't actually looked at before," said King.

To compile the "hunger atlas," Feed Ontario used data from member food banks and their affiliate agencies, between the period of January 1, 2018 and December 31, 2018.

The interactive "heat" map allows users to select and compare how many people access services from member food banks depending on where in the province they live.

Feed Ontario's Hunger Atlas shows where people in Toronto rely on food banks the most. People in the city's inner suburbs appear to visit most -- with the exception of the Toronto-Centre riding in the middle of downtown. (Supplied by Feed Ontario)

In 2018, Ontario's food banks were accessed by 507,977 people, who visited over three million times during the course of the year, according to King. But the map put those numbers into perspective.

"We were finally able to see that in fact, hunger does exist in every single provincial riding across the province," she said.

And King said the map will be useful when asking politicians about affordability issues in their own backyard.

"Something that elected officials need to really ask themselves is how many people should be allowed to go hungry," she said. 

Neil Hetherington, CEO of The Daily Bread Food Bank, said the interactive hunger atlas helps put a face to poverty in Toronto. 

"To make sure that hunger is visible to the community," he told CBC Toronto. "[The map] allows individuals to visually identify where hunger is in ridings very specific and then it calls for action."

Neil Hetherington, CEO of the Daily Bread Food Bank, says Feed Ontario's interactive map is a useful tool to help visualize where the need is greatest and keep politicians accountable. It also shows that Toronto is a city of haves and have-nots. (Philip Lee-Shanok/CBC)

Hetherington said one thing that struck him about the Feed Ontario map is that the Toronto ridings that had higher per capita usage were represented by all political stripes.

"Maybe it can be a unifying tool as well. There is poverty in ridings whether the riding is held by a Conservative, Liberal or NDP," said Hetherington.

Residents making 'tough choices'

For example, Toronto Centre, which represented 81,019 total visits to a food bank, voted for NDP MPP Suze Morrison. Residents in ​​​​Scarborough-Guildwood made 61,723 total visits to a food bank. Voters there elected Liberal MPP Mitzie Hunter. And in Etobicoke North, where people made 63,492 total visits to a food bank, voters picked Ontario Premier Doug Ford.

Morrison said the rising cost of living in the GTA is forcing residents to make "tough choices" about basic needs like transit and food. In an email statement to CBC Toronto, she accused the Ford government of slashing programs that would help people, such as the basic income pilot project.

"How exactly does Doug Ford expect families — including those in his own riding of Etobicoke North, no less — to emerge from poverty if he keeps slashing the services Ontarians desperately need? It's clear Doug Ford doesn't believe it's his job to help people lift themselves out of poverty." 

Hunter said "many organizations" in her riding, "lack funding and are often unable to meet the growing demands of food insecurity." The Salvation Army at Cedarbrae Community Church and 5N2 Soup Kitchen "struggled over the holidays last year," she said in an email statement.

"People are feeling the pressure in their household budget. To reduce poverty and ensure a hunger-free province, we need to make critical investments in Ontario's social assistance programs and find new ways of breaking cycles of poverty plaguing our communities."

Ford said in a statement that his government is making "life more affordable for Ontarians," pointing to the Low-Income Individuals and Families Tax Credit unveiled in the fall that cut income tax for residents earning less than $30,000.

"Our government will continue to take steps to ensure that Ontarians who are fighting to lift themselves out of poverty get the support they need by building a system that gives them the tools to find work, allows them to keep more of their hard-earned money, and ultimately empowers them to build a better, more independent life." 

Hetherington called the map a "great opportunity" for politicians to get a sense of what is happening in their own ridings.

"We have to work across party lines and see that there is a systemic issue," he said. "We know that food bank usage is going up and continues to go up."

Three electoral ridings where food bank use is higher than other parts of the city happen to be represented by MPPs from all three major political parties. (Supplied by Feed Ontario)

He said another aspect of food bank use that the map made clear was that, although there are clients in every riding, some parts of Toronto are more at risk of food insecurity than others.

"You do see areas where there is virtually no food bank usage and areas of heavy concentration and those areas of heavy concentration might be in the centre of the city as they are and they might be in far reaches on the outskirts," said Hetherington. "There is clearly a tale of two cities. There is clearly a divide."

The Daily Bread Food Bank's last annual report showed that there were 914,470 visits to food banks in Toronto last year and some 2.7 million meals served through Daily Bread meal programs.

The annual report showed a 61 per cent increase in food bank usage in Toronto's inner suburbs, while the number of seniors over 65 using food banks has nearly tripled, increasing from 3 per cent to 8 per cent in the past ten years.

In Scarborough, food bank visits rose by 86 per cent. There were 914,000 food bank visits over the last year in Toronto. Over 60 per cent of food bank clients rely on social assistance to make ends meet. Etobicoke experienced the highest increase of 170 per cent in the usage of food banks.


  • A previous version of this story said that the Daily Bread Food Bank's last annual report showed that one million Torontonians were served through meal programs over the course of a year. In fact, about 2.7 million meals were served through Daily Bread meal programs.
    Jul 25, 2019 3:31 PM ET


Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC National News

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with three decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for the National Network based in Toronto. His stories are on CBC Radio's World Report, World This Hour, World at Six and The World This Weekend as well as CBC TV's The National and CBC News Online. Follow him on Twitter @CBCPLS.

With files from Angelina King