How hunger and food insecurity works (and doesn't) in Toronto.
Daily Bread Food Bank is a charity that distributes food to local food banks and meal programs across Toronto. Every year, member agencies survey clients to track the state of hunger in Toronto, and the Who’s Hungry report presents their findings. Every year, we read it and get mad. Here’s why.
1. The average monthly income for food bank users is $750
Think it’s hard living in Toronto on a five-figure salary? Try four. The average food bank client makes $750 per month, or $9,000 per year. Most people don’t live in subsidized housing, and they spend about 70 per cent of their income on rent and utilities.1
The average income is so low because 65 per cent of food bank clients are on OW and ODSP. To put it bluntly, the Province just doesn’t give people enough money to live on—especially not in Toronto. (See for yourself.)
Poverty forces people to make hard choices. You can’t choose to pay less rent—but you can choose to eat less food.2 There are varying degrees of food insecurity, ranging from worrying about running out of food to going hungry all day, sometimes multiple times a month.
That’s where food banks come in. They were originally meant as a stopgap for people going through rough times, but people are using food banks for increasingly longer periods because…
2. More people than ever are “working poor”
Not all people who use food banks rely solely on social assistance; 11 per cent make most of their money from employment. Of these, three quarters make over minimum wage. The problem is that these jobs are often only part-time or contract work. In addition, 80 per cent of employed food bank users have neither drug nor dental benefits. Ongoing health conditions or sudden crises can devastate their finances.
3. Our city is increasingly polarized
Since 2008, food bank visits in the inner suburbs have skyrocketed by 48 per cent. Meanwhile, food bank visits in the core went down by 16 per cent.
Rising rent drives out food banks as well as the people they serve. It’s not just about food—local residents often oppose facilities for the most marginalized Torontonians, even though that’s where they’re least available and most needed. As the city continues to stratify along income lines, these conflicts will become more common.
4. Many Syrian refugees are living in poverty
Since arriving in Canada, 20 per cent of Syrian refugee adults have gone hungry at least once per week, and 13 per cent of their children have gone hungry at least once per week. Forty-three per cent of respondents have had to give up food to pay for something else—most commonly, rent.
Photo ops and feel-good news stories don’t show the harsh reality of Syrian newcomers’ lives in Canada. Contrary to popular belief, people who come to Canada as refugees don’t get any more social assistance than anyone else, let alone retirees. Like people on OW and ODSP, many must resort to food banks as they look for steady work. This was one cause of the surge in food bank visits Daily Bread tracked in early 2016. In effect, the various orders of government are “downloading” social services to volunteer-run non-profits.
5. Older Torontonians are falling through the cracks
The vast majority of those in this age cohort (ages 45–64)—67 per cent—were employed in Canada for the last 10 years. Of those who were employed in the last 10 years, almost half became unemployed within the last four years. Another 27 per cent became unemployed between five and 10 years ago, likely during the aftermath of the 2008 recession.
Ten years ago, a third of people who used food banks were 18 and under. Now, the demographics have flipped: a third are between 45 and 64. This isn’t just because Toronto’s population is aging in general or because there are better benefits for children and youth like the Ontario Child Benefit. The lowest-income Torontonians are still being affected by the 2008 recession. Many older people who lost work after 2008 are no longer covered by EI, not yet eligible for government pensions, and face barriers to employment because of ageism and disability. It’s this age group that is uniquely vulnerable to food insecurity.
6. We’re not getting the whole story
Not everyone who is “food insecure” visits a food bank, perhaps because of stigma, difficulty getting there, lack of appropriate food, or just lack of awareness. The people who do may be in the minority. Federal data offer more insight—for example, while a majority of people on social assistance are food insecure, most food insecure households’ main income source is employment.
Our system’s failings are infuriating. But what should anger—and worry—us even more are the failings we can’t see.
For a more thorough read-through, see my Storify.
- In the housing sector, the threshold for “affordable” is 30 per cent. The City’s Official Plan defines “affordable” as at or below average rent. ↩
- As the report says, “Hunger and poverty have a complex relationship in which one is the cause and consequence of the other. At the most fundamental level, poverty is the cause of hunger because there isn’t enough money for food. On the other hand, hunger impacts a person’s ability to be able to function to their fullest ability. Hunger not only affects peoples’ energy levels but may also exacerbate existing health conditions or be the cause of new ones. Consequently, this may hinder their ability to maintain jobs in order to manage their livelihoods, thereby creating and perpetuating a cycle of poverty.” ↩