Most food banks in Ontario experienced a “rapid surge in demand” during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new report published by Feed Ontario.
One of the Sudbury Food Bank’s agencies reported a 150-per-cent increase in the number of people accessing emergency food support each day, while Manitoulin Family Resources served 1,500 clients during their busiest month — a significant increase from their regular 300 to 330 clients.
“COVID-19 has compounded the already extreme challenges that are being faced by low-income Ontarians, and it has really impacted all communities,” said Carolyn Stewart, executive director of Feed Ontario.
“Particularly in terms of food bank use, we are concerned about what’s to come in the winter months.”
The 2020 Hunger Report released on Monday looked at data from 130 direct member food banks and 1,100 affiliate services that was gathered between April 1, 2019 and March 31, 2020.
It also included a special feature about the impact of COVID-19 on emergency food assistance services from the onset of the pandemic on March 17 to September 2020.
About 1 in 8 Ontarians — or 13 per cent of Ontario households — were considered food insecure in 2018, and 537,575 individuals accessed food bank services in the province between 2019 and 2020.
More than 3.2 million visits were made to food banks in Ontario during the same period, and 33 per cent of food bank visits were from children.
In the last two years, the province has seen a 7.8-per-cent increase in the number of people accessing support, and an 11.8-per-cent increase in the number of visits being made.
“Unfortunately, food bank use continues to rise and last year was no exception. We believe this continual increase in food bank use is driven by three things: an inadequate social safety net, precarious employment, and unaffordable housing,” said Stewart.
“For example, over 85 per cent of those that we serve are either rental or social housing tenants who spend over 70 per cent of their monthly income on rent. The good place to be, they say, is around 30 per cent. That’s significantly more, and it leaves little room for anything else.”
More than 65 per cent of individuals who visited food banks in the last year were on social assistance, many of them receiving far less than the “national standard” of $2,000 set by the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).
There has also been a 44-per-cent increase in the number of employed people accessing food bank services over the last four years.
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these pre-existing issues.
From March to June, food banks saw an overall 26.5-per-cent increase in the number of first-time users.
Out of 200 food bank users surveyed in September, roughly 50 per cent are worried about defaulting on a mortgage or facing eviction in the next two to six months.
An additional 90 per cent are incurring a significant amount of debt just to cover their expenses.
Manitoulin Family Resources, an agency that provides programming related to violence against women prevention, children’s services, and emergency food assistance to Manitoulin Island, shared its story with Feed Ontario for the purpose of the report.
“While the initial days of the pandemic were very quiet for food bank requests, it caused concern that we were not even receiving requests from some of our regular visitors,” said the organization.
“(Eventually), referrals began to increase, sometimes high, sometimes low, but then came a day where a worker called with 700 names of those in need. It was a turning point.”
The organization decided to send prepared pallets of food for pickup instead of their regular individual baskets. The pallets were then delivered and distributed to households in the area.
“For three consecutive months, our food bank provided food to over 1,000 individuals, with the highest month being over 1,500. As restrictions have eased in the province, we have seen a drop from those high numbers,” said Manitoulin Family Resources in the report.
“Some have speculated that individuals have had financial stability due in large part to CERB, but as CERB evolves and COVID numbers have again started to rise at a faster rate than the earlier wave, we are attempting to prepare for what will come.”
The report confirmed that according to the data, government income supports like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and the moratorium on evictions and the student loan interest freeze did help relieve some of the pressure on food bank use.
Community initiatives like pop-up food banks and meal programs also worked alongside government intervention to address the emergency need for food.
“Food banks would like to work ourselves out of business. No food bank thinks that we are the solution to food insecurity or poverty. Rather, we are serving an emergency need in the community,” said Stewart.
“The only way to address that need is good public policy. In our report, we do recommend a few key things to help move that needle forward.”
These things include reinstating the CERB benefit for those who have been impacted by COVID-19 as well as rent relief for low-income tenants that are facing large rent arrears or eviction, and the overhauling of Ontario’s social assistance programs so that recipients have the means to move out of poverty.
“Ontarians need access to quality employment, support services that do not perpetuate or deepen poverty, and access to safe, adequate, and affordable housing,” concluded the report.
“By investing in these key solutions, the Government of Ontario will not only reduce poverty and food insecurity, but also build a more equitable and healthier province for the people and families that call it home.”
Colleen Romaniuk is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at The Sudbury Star. The Local Journalism Initiative is made possible through funding from the federal government.