Ontario sees rise in single-person households using food banks: report

A new report by the Ontario Association of Food Banks (OAFB) says nearly 500,000 people turned to a food bank last year with a growing number of those clients being single-person households.

Report also found 90% of clients are renters or in social housing, spending over 70% of income on housing

Nearly 500,000 people in the province turned to a food bank last year, according to OAFB. (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

A new report by the Ontario Association of Food Banks (OAFB) says nearly 500,000 people in the province turned to a food bank last year, with a growing number of those clients being single-person households and renters.

Half of households served were "one-person households" or "unattached adults," according to the OAFB's 2017 Hunger Report, compared to just over 45 per cent in last year's report. 

"Year over year, food bank usage has remained relatively consistent. But we're seeing a noticeable shift in who is using our services," Carolyn Stewart, executive director of the OAFB, told CBC Toronto.

"As of 2015, the largest group of households are single-person households, with children being the second-largest group, and this has remained consistent this year."

Clients getting older

In Toronto, the Daily Bread Food Bank says single-person households have always been their main clients, but they seem to be getting older.

"Those who are 45 and up were perhaps a quarter of food bank clients maybe 10 years ago, maybe they're a third of food bank clients," Richard Matern, Director of Research & Communications of the Daily Bread Food Bank, said.

Lisa McMillan, 57, knows what it's like to be one of them.

McMillan now works at a bakery, but was once a regular at a food bank near her Etobicoke home when she was unemployed and on welfare. In those hard times, she struggled to get by.

"The first thing you do is pay your bill, you pay your rent, you pay your phone, and whatever you're left with is what you have for the month," she said. "So you're squaloring, you're suffocating sometimes thinking, 'How am I going to do this?' You have no choice but to turn to your community for help."

As a user of the food bank, McMillan also volunteered there, and says through that, she got back her self-esteem and self-worth. She plans to back to help out again this holiday season. 

Daily Bread Food Bank's Richard Matern says food bank clients are getting older. (CBC)

According to the report, 55 per cent of single-person households are people 45 years old or older compared to 27 per cent of the general food bank population.

"They might have lost their jobs in the last five years or so, and having a hard time reentering the job market due to disability or a difficult time managing with the job that they are able to get," Matern explained. 

For seniors in particular, the Daily Bread's fastest-rising group of clients in the past year, the food bank found many had to fall behind on rent and other necessities, including food, to pay for other essentials.

"Many had to skip meals in order to pay for prescription medications," Matern said. "That was a big surprise for us and a disappointing one."​
Some seniors are choosing to forgo rent, food for medications, according to the Daily Bread Food Bank.
The report also says single-person households are more commonly male, with 59 per cent of them being male compared to 49 per cent when compared with the general food bank population.

Matern says significant progress has been made in the past 10 years for income supports for families with children, but that similar policies for single people are lacking.

"Where there hasn't been a lot of attention paid is for single people without children, who at often times lose a job and their employment insurance runs out they're forced to rely on social assistance, which has fallen so far past the cost of living that they can't afford the rent," Matern added.

Rent is why most skip meals: Daily Bread

This year's Hunger Report focuses on a lack of affordable housing and how it has affected food bank usage, and the organization believes a large part of the increase in single-person households turning to food banks has to do with a jump in housing costs.

"With 70 per cent of the people who utilize our services being recipients of social assistance, if you're a single person on Ontario Works you receive $721 a month with the average cost of a one-bedroom apartment in Ontario being $1,000 it's just virtually impossible to make ends meet," Stewart said.

"When you're on a single income there's no one to depend on but yourself so that means you're having to keep on top of all of the different expenses versus dual-income households which have a little bit more flexibility."

Particularly in Toronto, Matern says housing is one of the biggest stressors for those facing food insecurities, and has caught some people off guard.

Rising housing costs are a major reason why the Daily Bread Food Bank says clients are turning to its services. (Google Street View)

"What we find in Toronto is that it's the most common reason people cite is that they have to skip meals is in order to pay their rent," Matern says. "It doesn't surprise me that it would be happening province-wide."

Outside of housing, he says Torontonians also struggle to find money to eat because of transit.

"To be able to get from A to B is a key reason why many people have to skip meals — to be able to get to doctor's appointments, job interviews or their jobs, or to school and it's one of those on-going things," Matern said.