‘The worst is yet to come’, report warns as Ontario food banks see rise in first-time users

A newly-released report says it’s believed “the worst is yet to come” as Ontario’s food banks recorded seeing an overall 26.5 per cent increase in first-time users within the first four months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The same report found nearly half of food bank visitors said they’re worried about getting evicted or defaulting on mortgage payments in the coming months, while more than 93 per cent reported borrowing money, accessing a payday loan or using credit to help pay for monthly necessities.

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“As people’s budgets are being stressed even further, this really shows us that people are at great risk for being evicted and at a great risk for homelessness,” said Carolyn Stewart, the executive director of Feed Ontario, an organization that represents food banks in the province.

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“We have a huge concern with this, especially as we go into the cold winter months, and we know the end of the pandemic is really nowhere in sight.”

Food banks don’t immediately see the rippling effects of economic impact, according to Stewart.

Following the recession 12 years ago, the report says food bank use in Ontario rose by 29 per cent between 2008 and 2012.

“This is because people use other methods to assist, so they’ll burn through their savings first, they’ll borrow from friends, they might reduce their belongings … before turning to a food bank for support,” Stewart said.

“While we’ve seen our numbers start to increase, we haven’t felt — we don’t believe — the full impact of the pandemic and anticipate our numbers going up over the next six to 12 months.”

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The report says Ontario’s food banks saw a rapid surge in demand when the provincial government declared a COVID-19 state of emergency in March, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without sufficient income for their basic needs.

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“We saw an initial surge in demand and then that food bank curve, as we’re saying, was flattened by government supports like CERB and the additional supports that were put into place by the provincial government,” Stewart said.

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“As those have been winding down, we’ve started to see our numbers on average increase month over month.”

By September, the report says, 80 per cent of the 410 hunger relief agencies surveyed recorded seeing food bank use numbers that were “comparable or even lower” to before the pandemic.

However generally, urban centres with large populations and a high cost of living saw an increase in food bank use over the course of the pandemic, according to Stewart.

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In a preliminary analysis of fall food bank use data, the report says the number of visits to Ontario’s food banks were already 10 per cent higher in September 2020 compared to the previous year.

“Not only is this unsustainable long-term, it’s really going to make it even more difficult for low-income families to get back on their feet post-pandemic,” Stewart added.

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In response, Feed Ontario’s report makes several recommendations for change: 1) To provide immediate income support to those most affected by COVID-19; 2) To overhaul Ontario’s social assistance programs to make sure people have the necessary resources to escape poverty; and 3) To invest in a strong workforce to ensure Ontarians are able to earn a sufficient income.

Read more: Trudeau announces $100M for food banks amid coronavirus pandemic

“Ultimately, food banks are not a solution to food insecurity and poverty,” Stewart said.

“We exist to provide emergency support to an immediate need, but the long-term way to address poverty and food insecurity is through strong public policies that ensure a good social safety net.”

Between April 1, 2019, and March 31, 2020, 537,575 individuals accessed Ontario food banks, visiting them more than 3.2 million times throughout the year. This represents a 5.3 per cent increase in the number of unique individuals using food banks over the previous year.

According to the report, one in eight Ontarians were considered food insecure as of 2018.

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