This past holiday season, food banks all across Ontario benefited from the generosity of their communities. Ontarians came together to donate food and financial support, both of which will make an enormous difference in the lives of people who struggle to make ends meet.
Yet as the holiday lights and warmth fade and we head back into everyday life, we must not forget that this is not enough. In Ontario alone, it is estimated that 770,000 people visit food banks annually, and 20 per cent of food banks run out of supplies at least once every year. In a province that has more than enough food for everyone, why is this happening?
While there are a number of reasons that someone may need to access a food bank, we know that one of the major reasons is income. A single person on Ontario Works (OW) receives $7,872 annually, while an individual on the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) receives a meager $13,000 per year. This is a far cry from the $22,100 annual income that the provincial government defines as the poverty line. Beyond social assistance, it is arguable that today's minimum wage does not provide sufficient income, as those with full time hours still fall under the poverty line by 13 per cent.
Some advances have been made to address some of these issues: the economy has seen some improvements and minimum wage has increased, but this still hasn't been enough to combat increases in expenses. While it is normal for the price of goods to increase, basic necessities like food and shelter costs have skyrocketed. For example, the price of meat jumped by 18% last year. If you're already struggling to make ends meet each month, these added costs have made the basics for survival even more expensive. In a situation like this, it's no wonder so many Ontarians rely on food banks to help supplement their daily lives.
Food banks across the province have been working very hard to advocate for long-term solutions that both address the root causes of poverty while helping to meet an individual's basic needs. This year's Hunger Report revealed that the average food bank user spends 70 per cent of their income on rent and utilities. This leaves very little for everything else, and puts them at high risk of homelessness. Meanwhile, the waitlist for affordable housing in Ontario is up to eight years long in some municipalities. Housing is an absolute cost: it cannot be scrimped on or left unpaid if money is tight one month. Food costs, on the other hand, can be adjusted by choosing lower quality items or going without -- but no one should have to do this.
A coalition of private sector and front line agencies including the Daily Bread Food Bank, the Federation of Rental-Housing Providers of Ontario, and the Ontario Association of Non-Profit Housing have proposed a new income support called the Ontario Housing Benefit to address this problem.
The concept is simple: assist those on OW/ODSP and the working poor by indexing rental costs to their income; ensuring rent does not exceed 30% of their income. Taking lessons from the Ontario Child Benefit, it helps make housing more affordable while smoothing the transition from social assistance to employment. There is currently no housing benefit for the working poor.
This strategy accommodates for higher housing prices in urban centers, takes into account family sizes, reduces rent inflation, incentivizes people to find work and reduces the risk of people returning to OW. Moreover, it is cost-effective and administratively simple to implement.
By creating a housing system that works with those who need it most instead of working against them, Ontario would reduce the risk of non-payment of rent, eviction and homelessness for our most vulnerable citizens. You can support this initiative by signing the Daily Bread Food Bank's petition or by contacting your local MPP in support of the Housing Benefit.
Hunger is a symptom of poverty. Thus, solving hunger in Ontario must be a multi-pronged approach that involves both continuing the generous support of our local food banks, as they help to supplement the need for fresh, healthy food, while addressing the root causes of poverty by implementing support systems that ensure basic living necessities, such as affordable housing, are met.
By Ashley Quan
Marketing & Communications Intern, Ontario Association of Food Banks
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