KINGSTON – It is a pattern repeated several times a day at the Partners in Mission Food Bank in this eastern Ontario city.
Volunteers push shopping carts around the shelves filled with non-perishable food on the perimeter of the room before returning to the big table in its middle, where items are placed into shopping bags. It’s a daily routine that, as the cost of living increases, has become more important to more people in Ontario who are finding it difficult to make ends meet.
“We all see it when we go to the grocery store,” Dan Irwin, the food bank’s executive director, said. “You have to spend more on food. You have to spend more on gas. Well, you have to spend less somewhere, right?”
After housing costs, themselves steadily spiralling upward, the price of food is one of the biggest expenses people face. And as voters prepare to go to the polls in Ontario on June 2, many will be looking to the candidates to see how their parties are going to address the rising cost of living.
In the first three months of 2022, the number of hampers the Kingston food bank handed out increased by 19 per cent over the same time period last year. In 2021, Partners in Mission handed out a record 14,229 food hampers — worth more than $2.8 million — and helped more than 6,000 people, almost 30 per cent of them children.
Last year, the food bank spent eight per cent more on food for its clients. For 2022, the agency budgeted for a 10 per cent increase.
“Over the last year, what I really noticed is that our demand for food hampers is increasing and the clients that come to see us are are needing to stay with us for a longer period of time,” Irwin said.
“Maybe in the past somebody had an electrical bill or a car repair and that knocked them off their budget and they needed to come to us for maybe a month or two and then they’d be moving on. But now with the cost of everything being so high, they’re needing to stay for a longer period of time to get over the little bumps.”
Across Ontario, in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic between April 1, 2020, and March 31, 2021, more than 592,000 accessed a food bank, according to Feed Ontario, formerly the Ontario Association of Food Banks. That was an increase of 10 per cent from the previous year, the largest single-year increase since 2009.
The people accessing food banks also accessed them more often, with more than 3.68 million visits, a 12 per cent increase over the previous year.
“We’re all kind of in similar situations,” Irwin said. “It doesn’t matter which postal code you go to in Canada, in Ontario in particular you’ll find food bank usage, so you know there’s need everywhere, and everyone is impacted by rising costs, whether it’s the gas bill or the food bill, and it’s those rising costs that will impact what you do.”
Inflation has been on the rise for a while.
In 2021, the country’s consumer price index increased 3.4 per cent, according to Statistics Canada, the biggest jump since 1991. In Ontario, the price increases were even higher at 3.5 per cent. In its annual report on inflation, Statistics Canada said inflation was the result of “widespread global supply constraint and pent-up consumer demand as the economy reopened.”
Prices for goods were up 4.7 per cent, and the cost of services increased 2.3 per cent in 2021 over 2020 prices.
Gasoline prices increased more than 30 per cent in 2021 after falling during the early months of the pandemic when businesses closed down.
Those price increases continued into 2022.
Canadian consumer prices increased in March 6.7 per cent over the same time period last year, the largest one-month increase since January 1991.
“Inflationary pressure remained widespread in March, as prices rose across all eight major components,” Statistics Canada stated in its monthly update on inflation.
“Prices increased against the backdrop of sustained price pressure in Canadian housing markets, substantial supply constraints and geopolitical conflict, which has affected energy, commodity and agriculture markets.”
March’s increase followed CPI increases of 5.7 per cent in February and 5.1 per cent in January.
In response, in mid-April the Bank of Canada raised its prime interest rate by half a percentage point to one per cent and hinted at additional rate increases in the near future.
Inflation is a sign that the country’s economy is in reasonably good condition, said Don Drummond, the Stauffer-Dunning Fellow and an adjunct professor at the Queen’s University School of Policy Studies.
A record low unemployment rate — 5.3 per cent in March — coupled with rising wages, strong consumer demand and supply disruptions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic are all contributing factors to higher prices, he said.
“There’s a lot of it that is just good old-fashioned demand and supply imbalances and it comes back to this record low unemployment rate of 5.3 per cent,” Drummond said. “Even if we didn’t have the supply disruption, just given the strength of the economy we would still have a lot of inflation.”
The federal government’s efforts to address the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic need to end because the economy doesn’t need the help, he said.
Canada’s economy is also in a good position to transition away from the pandemic supports, he said, because among those who have benefited from the record low unemployment are groups that historically have higher unemployment, including women, Indigenous people and recent immigrants.
“Market incomes went down in 2020 and 2021, but government support payments more than made up for that,” he said. “And because the government support payments were targeted largely at lower-income people, the rate of poverty went down a lot. In fact, the biggest reduction we’ve ever seen.”
The recent Bank of Canada interest rate hike could help take some of the pressure out of prices, he said, but the 2022 federal budget included $10 billion in additional spending that Drummond said would likely add to rising prices.
“Why are they adding net stimulus to the economy when there’s a record low unemployment rate? They’re adding fuel; they’re throwing gasoline on the inflation,” he said.
Drummond said higher inflation may hang around for a couple of years, but the government needs to take steps to rein it in.
Back at the Partners in Mission Food Bank, Irwin said he is resigned to higher prices as the new normal for many of the agency’s most needed items.
“In my lifetime, I’ve rarely experienced prices rolling back, so I do believe what we’re seeing is a new cost in many things. Some will come back down, you know, when the supply is available,” he said, “but I think we’ve got new price points for many items, and in the future what we’ll see is a sale price that was a regular price in 2018 or 2019.”
What are the province’s political parties promising to do about the rising cost of living?
The ruling Progressive Conservatives pledged an eight per cent increase to the minimum wage, bringing it to $15.50 per hour by Oct. 1, 2022.
The PCs also eliminated the $120 annual fee for licence plate renewals and cut the fuel tax by 5.7 cents per litre of gasoline and 5.3 cents on the separate fuel tax for other fuels, such as diesel, from July 1 to Dec. 31.
The New Democratic Party promised that if elected it would raise the minimum wage to $20 per hour by 2026 through annual $1-an-hour increases starting in 2022.
The NDP also promised to eliminate postal code discrimination by auto insurance companies.
The Liberals pledged to replace the minimum wage with a regional living wage starting at $16 per hour. The party also promised to remove the provincial HST on prepared food purchases less than $20.
The Liberals also promised to match annual retirement savings up to $1,000 for low-income earners, including portable savings plans for gig workers. They are also offering to add up to $1,000 annually to what pensioners receive through Ontario’s Guaranteed Annual Income System (GAINS).
— STORY BY Eliott Ferguson, The Kingston Whig-Standard