Food banks urge Ontario government to do more to help residents facing food insecurity

Organizers from several Ontario food banks are reporting a sharp rise in demand and a deep need for more social supports. Faiza Amin speaks with the organization behind the report on the surge in demand.

Food banks across Ontario are urging the provincial government to do more to ensure hundreds of thousands residents don’t go hungry, as food banks say they are on the verge of collapse.

In a press conference at Queen’s Park, Carolyn Stewart, CEO of Feed Ontario, said their data shows there are three key drivers that can be addressed by the government.

“These are the progressive growth in precarious work, the erosion of our social support programs and a failure to invest in affordable and supportive housing,” said Stewart.

Food bank usage in Ontario has increased by 38 percent over the past year with over 800,000 individuals making nearly six million visits.

As food banks have been saying for months, employment does not guarantee a way out of poverty. More than one in six food bank visitors in Ontario say their primary source of income is employment, nearly 40 per cent more than last year.

“Imagine that $100 to afford all your basic necessities, transportation, medication, food, utilities, even a winter coat for your child,” shared Stewart. “Poverty is a policy choice and our government has the ability to make meaningful change. And there’s no shortage of ways to make that change.”

And those on social assistance can barely make ends meet, according to Stewart.

“It is still not enough. These programs are legislating people into poverty with rates that fall drastically below the poverty line,” she said.

Stewart explains that when strong social safety nets and good jobs aren’t available, the burden shifts onto community-based organizations like food banks.

The majority of food banks, 69 per cent say, they’re concerned about not having enough food for clients as visits more than double what they were, before the pandemic. 

In Mississauga, for example, they are seeing a 50 per cent increase versus last year and five per cent of entire city is using food banks, according to Meghan Nicholls, with Food Banks Mississauga.

“Only about 18 per cent of Canadians make donations to any charitable organization. So if there’s only 18 per cent of people out there who give it all and then five per cent of people using the food bank, where’s the tipping point between they’re not seeing enough donors anymore, to care for the number of people in our community.,” said Nicholls.

She said that’s when the system could collapse, when “the number of people needing service [is] rising beyond the ability for the community to donate that level.”

“It wouldn’t happen immediately. It would be a reducing of service gradually until that infrastructure just no longer exists in our communities,” said Nicholls.

Other food banks agree that they are also on the verge of collapse. When asked what would happen if the food banks were unable to operate, Stewart said, “You’ll have 800,000 homeless people in communities across Ontario.”

Stewart said food banks do not take any government funding and that is not what they are asking for.

“We don’t want to further institutionalize the idea of food banking as a solution to food insecurity because again, we’d like to reiterate we are not a solution to food insecurity, but good public policy is ultimately we want the income to be directed to individuals in need so that they can all afford their basic necessities. People should not have to access charitable food service to get by.”

The food banks would like to see increased provincial social assistance, reduce clawbacks on earned income and government benefits, improve tenant protections so “people don’t have to choose between keeping a roof over their head or buying groceries,” create quality jobs, and “support the Government of Canada in reforming employment insurance so that more Ontarians are eligible for the program.”

Stewart was asked about the concerns of Ontario Disability Support Payments advocates who worry the province will claw back government benefits once the Canada Disability Benefit comes into effect.

“It becomes a completely useless benefit if you claw back the income and don’t provide the income it was intended to. That’s why the federal government and disability advocates, as well as organizations like food banks, have supported initiatives like that because we know it can make meaningful change. But by tying a clawback to it, it reduces it to completely pointless.”

But Stewart hopes they are listening right now. “We don’t use the word crisis easily. And we don’t come to this altogether to sound alarm bells easily. And we’re here because the situation has reached crisis levels and I do hope that the premier is listening today.”

The group of food banks will also be going to eight different locations over the next two weeks to speak in local communities with local representatives alongside the CEO of Food Banks Canada.

“We are also talking on the national level about these important issues, because this is not just one single government. This is local, regional, provincial, and federal that need to be invested in making a change on food insecurity.”

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