Number of food bank users down in Ontario but still 335,000 a month: report

A new report finds food bank use is down this year in Ontario, but the high cost of rent and hydro are big concerns for the Ontario Association of Food Banks.

High hydro bills, precarious work, inadequate social assistance all contributing, association says

Recent immigrants from Slovakia get food from the Daily Bread Food Bank. (Lorenda Reddekopp/CBC)

Slightly fewer people used food banks in the province this year, but help with rent and electricity would bring down that number even more, according to the Ontario Association of Food Banks.

The organization published its annual report Monday. The report says 335,000 people in Ontario used a food bank every month in 2016. That's down six per cent from last year but it's still a number the group calls "staggering." 

Two young volunteers sort donations at the Daily Bread Food Bank in Toronto. (Lorenda Reddekopp/CBC)

Food bank use is down considerably from 2012, when it peaked at 404,000 people using the services every month.

The report notes that any rise in the cost of living can be a challenge for low-income people. It cites electricity bills as a big problem, with hydro rates double what they were 10 years ago.

Carolyn Stewart of the Ontario Association of Food Banks says skyrocketing hydro costs mean some people are choosing between heating their home and buying food. (Lorenda Reddekopp/CBC)

People choosing between heating home or buying food

"When people are seeing $700, $800 bills... [they're] having to make the impossible choice between things like heating their home or buying food," said Carolyn Stewart, executive director of the Ontario Association of Food Banks.

She compares this year's food bank usage to eight years ago when the last recession hit. Even though the economy has improved overall, 6.9 per cent more people are using food banks this year than in 2008.

Stewart blames precarious employment, saying that the majority of jobs added in the past eight years have been temporary or part-time. 

"Unfortunately, those come with no benefits, no sick days, no vacation pay ... making it difficult for people to make ends meet," she said.

Increase in people over 45 using food banks

Toronto's Daily Bread Food Bank, one of the local agencies that provided statistics for the report, has noticed an increase in an older demographic coming through the doors for food, particularly single people who live alone, which includes seniors.

That rise is also reflected in the Ontario numbers, with more than 45 per cent of food bank users from a single-person household, the largest group represented.

Richard Mattern of the Daily Bread Food Bank has seen an increase in older people living alone using their services. (CBC News)

Richard Mattern, senior manager of research at The Daily Bread Food Bank, says a solution would be a low-income housing subsidy. He notes the Ontario government started providing this support through a pilot program to women who have escaped domestic violence.

"If they could extend that to all low-income households across Ontario, that would make a huge impact," said Mattern.

"People would get help paying their rent and then they would be able to get more money towards food."

The report finds 33.4 per cent of people using a food bank in Ontario are under 18 years old.

Mattern says one piece of positive news is that number is lower than it had been in Toronto. He attributes the drop to more government programs tackling child poverty.

Sounds of the Season is CBC Toronto's annual charity drive. Please visit our website for details on the Dec. 2 event and how you can support local food banks.