Food bank use in the Toronto region is growing as more people struggle with low incomes and the galloping cost of living, says the Daily Bread Food Bank.
In the year ending March 2019, food bank visits topped one million in Toronto and Mississauga, according to the annual Who’s Hungry report being released at Queen’s Park Monday.
After dipping in 2017-18, visits jumped by 4 per cent this year, double the rate of population growth in the area, adds the report, which for the first time includes food banks in Mississauga.
“The food bank is the canary in the coal mine,” said Daily Bread’s executive director Neil Hetherington. “That’s why this research is critically important. It is letting people know what is happening on the ground almost in real time.”
The annual survey of 1,400 food bank clients, conducted in March, tells the larger story of thousands of people living in a prosperous region who still struggle with hunger, he said in an interview.
“Low incomes and the rising cost of living mean that our neighbours are struggling more and more to put food on the table,” he said.
“Hunger is not a food issue, it’s an income issue. And it’s also a cost of living issue,” Hetherington added. “How do we reduce precarious employment, make sure individuals have appropriate disability and (welfare) support, access to affordable housing, transportation and child care? Those are the types of things we need to work on.”
Lack of affordable housing is a driver of both poverty and food insecurity in the Toronto region, the report notes.
Food bank users are spending an average of 6 per cent more on rent since last year while food costs in the Toronto area have increased by almost 8 per cent, the report says.
Almost all survey respondents reported incomes below Canada’s official poverty line, which in Toronto is defined as $41,362 for a family of two adults and two children.
About 53 per cent said they have skipped a meal to pay a bill, and 25 per cent of parents reported that their children go hungry at least once a month.
Although the median monthly income of survey respondents has not increased since last year, the percentage of income spent on rent and utilities for those living in private rental units has jumped from 68 per cent to 74 per cent.
It means they are left with just $7.83 per person, per day to spend on all other necessities, about 3 per cent less than last year, the report notes.
Toronto Food Bank user Stan Neatt struggles to get by on less than half that amount.
The former truck driver and downtown drop-in worker says he has “almost nothing” left from his monthly $1,300 Ontario Disability Support Program cheque after paying $1,200 in rent for a two-bedroom apartment he shares with a roommate.
“For me, the food bank is a necessity,” said Neatt, who moved to the apartment above a store on Danforth Ave. after he “lost everything” in a robbery a year ago.
“It’s pretty bad when you have to sleep with a hammer in your hand,” he said.
Neatt was forced to quit his job in late 2017 after he was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Surgery left him with short-term memory loss that has made it difficult to return to work, he said.
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Although weekly food bank visits provide some fresh vegetables along with canned and dry goods, Neatt says he misses hamburger and “nice cuts of meat.”
“I’m just trying to stay healthy,” he said.
In addition to including Mississauga food bank visits, this year’s report uses a new database that allows Daily Bread to collect demographic information such as ethnicity, immigration status and even food preferences to better track trends and to see if policy interventions are making a difference.
Although expanding the scope of the report makes it more difficult to make comparisons to previous reports, Hetherington said he hopes this year’s analysis will provide a baseline for more nuanced information in the future.
The demographic profile of food bank users has remained steady, with working age adults between the ages of 19 and 44 and single individuals making up the largest group, according to the report.
About 57 per cent of survey respondents said they were living with a disability, more than twice the national average of 22 per cent.
Some 62 per cent of respondents are Canadian citizens born outside the country. But most of them have been living in Canada for more than 10 years, raising serious questions about barriers faced by longtime immigrants, Hetherington noted.
About 25 per cent of survey respondents identify as Black, compared to just 8 per cent of the Toronto population.
The over-representation of Black people using food banks points to a larger trend in the distribution of wealth in the Toronto region highlighted in a FoodShare report last month, Hetherington said.
To achieve a hunger-free city, the report is calling on the province to reform social assistance, strengthen legislation governing precarious employment and boost tenant protections. It urges both Ottawa and Queen’s Park to expand tax benefits for low-income households and provide more affordable housing and child care.
The report, which focuses on the right to food, praises Ottawa for introducing federal strategies on poverty reduction, housing and food policy in the past year. But it notes only the national housing strategy enshrines the right to housing in legislation. The federal government needs to take a similar approach to food, Hetherington said.
“Food is a basic human right, and our governments have a legal obligation to create an environment in which people have the physical and economic means to access adequate food,” he added.