As poverty surges in the inner-suburbs, food banks struggle to thwart rampant hunger in new pockets of the city.
Diane Clarke is a single mother of four, living in North Etobicoke. In April 2014, she had to leave her job as a social worker to take care of her oldest daughter, who had become sick. Her $4,000 monthly income was cut down to $1,380; after paying rent, Clarke had less than $200 left over to cover her family’s cost of living. Her small savings quickly dried up, and after three weeks without work, she ran out of food.
“I was at rock bottom,” says Clarke. “Here I am out of work, I have no money, I don’t know what to do.”
That’s when she called North York Harvest food bank. “They were just closing the doors and I started explaining that I really need bread and milk for my kids,” she says. “They realized my need at that moment and they said, ‘you know what, come.’”
For the past year and a half, Clarke has been visiting the food bank—a four bus-ride commute—once or twice per month, each time stocking up on four days’ worth of food for her and her kids.
According to a recent report by The Daily Bread Food Bank, a network of food banks across the city, Clarke is among a growing demographic of Torontonians who rely on food banks to survive.
Since 2008, the number of food bank users living in the inner-suburbs of Toronto, like Clarke, has surged 45 per cent. Meanwhile, downtown food bank users have declined by 16 per cent.
The findings mimic the common trend of low-income residents migrating away from the core as wealthier Torontonians move into the well-serviced, oh-so-desirable city centre.
What’s worrisome, says Richard Matern, senior manager of research at Daily Bread and author of the report, is that even in so-called affordable neighbourhoods, scores of people are going hungry.
In the paper, Matern attributes the rise in hunger among low-income residents to increasing gaps in the social safety net, where, over the last 20 years, the burden of costs for certain goods and services have shifted onto the individual “to the point where people go hungry to make ends meet.”
“For those coming to food banks in Toronto, a key reason they face these struggles is that the vast majority of them rely on social assistance,” the study reads. “Of those surveyed, 65 per cent rely on one of two provincial social assistance programs, OW (Ontario Works) or ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Program).”
Both programs took a dramatic blow in 1995 with a 21 per cent cut and remained frozen until 2003. Since then, the Ontario government has increased rates for families on OW and individuals on ODSP by 17.2 per cent, and rates for individuals on OW by 24.4 per cent. After accounting for inflation and the increased cost of living, however, these gains are marginal. As Matern points out in the paper, “In the case of ODSP, it would take a 25 per cent increase in the rate for a single person household to be worth what it was in 1994.”
Today, people on OW and ODSP receive a flat rate of $656 and $1098 respectively, and neither program attempts to cover the actual cost of basic needs like shelter, transportation and food.
While not all food bank users are out of work and on social assistance, minimum-wage jobs and precarious employment for an estimated 52 per cent of Torontonians has created a “working poor” population of 70,000 people, many of whom need to sacrifice buying food to cover other expenses.
“The most common issue that people are facing is the cost of housing,” says Matern. While 34 per cent of people surveyed for the report live in subsidized housing, they are still relying on food banks. All together, “[food bank users] are spending on average 71 percent of their income on rent and utilities, which leaves very little for anything else,” he says.
In fact, most clients are left with just $6.67 after covering housing costs. It should come as no surprise then that 38 per cent of food bank visitors go hungry at least once a week, and 35 per cent have gone a full day without eating in the last year—half of whom said they have a foodless day at least once a month.
When I asked Diane Clarke if she’s gone entire days without food, she laughed and said “lots and lots of times.”
The Daily Bread is working hard to stymie hunger in the city, orchestrating almost 200 food programs in churches and community centres across Toronto. The programs run largely off individual volunteers and partner organizations who donate time, food and money—enough to feed some 60,000 visitors a total of 700 pounds of food each month. But Matern says that’s not enough. “To keep up with the vast increase in demand is very hard,” he says, explaining that food bank access in the inner-suburbs—where people need it most—has not kept pace with the nearly doubling in need those neighbourhoods have experienced in the last seven years.
“There’s been a few [food banks] that have been able to open in the inner-suburbs over the last few years, but not enough,” he says. “We’re having trouble finding the space to open more and to accommodate the existing need out there.”
But more important than opening more food banks, says Matern, is tackling the root problems causing rampant hunger in the first place. Specifically, he says all levels of government need to do a better job of addressing the need for affordable housing and transportation, and stable, full-time employment.
On November 3, Toronto City Council is set to vote on a proposed poverty reduction strategy which outlines 17 recommendations and 71 actions meant to “respond to the immediate needs of low-income residents, reorient services towards the creation of pathways out of poverty, and address the systemic causes of inequality.”
“This is a good step,” says Matern, who is hopeful the Ontario and new federal government will step in as well. “At the provincial level we would like see changes in income policy because we’d rather that money go directly into people’s pockets so they can buy their own food.” From the federal government’s part, Matern says “we’re hoping that poverty becomes an important issue on the agenda and that they deal with the need for affordable housing.”