November 29, 2023

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First-time food bank use sees massive spike in Ontario: report

Ontario Hunger Report shows more people than ever before – especially first timers – are seeking help from food banks in Ontario

The annual Feed Ontario Hunger Report was released Thursday and showed there was a 64 per cent increase in the number of first-time users at Ontario food banks since before the pandemic. 

In addition, the demand at food banks across Ontario is higher than it has ever been. 

Details of the annual report were released at a news conference at the Sudbury Food Bank office. 

Carolyn Stewart, the executive director of Feed Ontario, told the audience that while the numbers in the report might be startling, they were not surprising.

“That being said, we’re always concerned. For us, this is the sixth year on record that numbers continue to increase here in Ontario. They are getting worse year over year,” she added.

The report said it was believed that the COVID-19 pandemic created a spike in the demand, it was not expected that the spike would become the norm.

“While it was initially hoped that rapidly escalating food bank use was the result of an acute set of circumstances related to the pandemic, more than three years later, food bank use has only continued to increase,” said the report.

“Between January 2022 and September 2022, the number of people accessing food banks increased 24 per cent over the previous year, with one in three people being first-time visitors, meaning they have never had to access a food bank before,” the report continued.

Stewart added that not only has the demand increased, but this is now six years in a row that Ontario food banks are facing an increase.

“That should be concerning to everyone. You know, for us, we’re just shy of 600,000 people this year (across Ontario). And for us, we really want to ask how many people is too many? At this point, we’re reaching an all-time high. And we really want people to consider that there are so many people going hungry in this province, and we need to make a change,” said Stewart.

That change needs to come from the government, said the report. 

“Feed Ontario is calling on the province to take immediate action by providing gig workers with the same employment protections; increasing social assistance rates to a basic standard of living; making housing affordable by investing in new and renovated affordable housing initiatives; and including people with lived experience in the design and development of programs and policies,” said the document. 

With respect to the call for more government support, Stewart said she can only hope the province is receptive.

“We’re always hopeful. We do believe that the government shares our vision of ending hunger and poverty here in Ontario.  But for us, it’s to continue really what we know is important is making sure we are being the advocates of those who access our services because in a lot of times those are the voices that are not heard. 

Also commenting on the report was Daniel Xilon, the executive director of Banque d’aliments Sudbury Food Bank, the organization that oversees more than 40 charitable food organizations in Greater Sudbury. 

He commented on the new numbers in the 2002 report — that only 27 per cent of unemployed Ontarians are able to receive federal employment benefits; that two-thirds of people on Ontario social assistance are going to food banks; that 45 per cent of food bank users blame the rising cost of food as a reason to need food bank assistance; that 13 per cent said it was the cost of housing that sent them to the food bank, and; that nine per cent said either low wages or not enough hours at work were the reasons. 

Another statistic is that 50 per cent of the people who rely on the food bank are children. 

Xilon said the Sudbury numbers closely parallel the provincial numbers. 

“Absolutely spot on. There’s no surprise here. Like I said, I knew the numbers were going to be high,” Xilon said. He added that it is something that he and other food agencies in Sudbury have been aware of for several months.

“It’s no surprise I mean, we are easily in the one-to-three people being a first-time user of the food bank, easily, maybe even more. But we are definitely in that capacity. Fifty per cent with children, absolutely,” Xilon said.

Also in Sudbury on Thursday, the local branch of the Salvation Army reported there has seen a significant increase in the number of families registering for Christmas assistance.

That number is up by more than 200 households and it means the local demand is now at more than 1,000 households city wide. 

The Salvation Army in Sudbury is putting a call out for help, said a news release from that organization. 

The Feed Ontario report also included information that said for Ontario families and individuals living in poverty, it is now harder to escape that poverty than it was 30 years ago. The reasons quoted were such things as inflation, less full-time secure work options, and poor social policies from government. Also, while food banks have now become a mainstream contributor to people living in poverty, fewer donations are being made to food banks in general.

Other statistics outlined in the annual report include the following items:

  • 587,103 adults and children accessed a food bank in Ontario between April 1st, 2021, to March 31st, 2022 – an increase of 15 per cent over the last three years.
  • Ontario’s food banks were visited more than 4,353,000 times throughout the year, an increase of 42 per cent over the last three years.
  • There has been a 47 per cent increase in people with employment accessing food banks since 2018.

Additional food bank data shows that between January 2022 and September 2022:

  • The number of people accessing a food bank increased by 24 per cent over the previous year alone.
  • First time visitors have increased 64 per cent over pre-pandemic levels, with one in three visitors being those who had never turned to a food bank for assistance before.
  • Ontario’s food banks were visited an average of 403,000 times per month, a 20 per cent increase over the pervious year and a 56 per cent increase over the monthly average leading up to the pandemic.
  • Two out of three food banks have experienced a noticeable decrease in food donations.
  • One in five food banks have not been able to purchase the same volume of food due to higher food prices.

Len Gillis covers health care and mining for