12/21/2012 12:09 EST | Updated 02/23/2013 05:12 EST

Immigrant Families Increasingly Likely To Rely On Food Banks


Every Saturday morning, like millions of other Canadian families, Quxia Lin and her children, Emily and Aiden, do their grocery shopping.

But it’s not like Lin, who was born in China, gets into a car to drive to the supermarket. She has to bundle her kids up for the 30-minute walk to the local food bank.

Statistically, Lin and her kids are more likely to rely on food banks than the average Canadian.

Recent studies show that a disproportionate number of recent immigrants use food banks. Among the million people in Canada who used food banks on a daily basis this year, almost half of them were children and new immigrants.

Some experts suggest that poverty in Canada is becoming more “racialized,” especially in urban centres like Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.

Leonard Edwards, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, reports that one in three poor people are immigrants belonging to a visible minority group.

Making ends meet

Right now, Lin makes a thousand dollars a month on maternity benefits. Before two-month-old Aiden was born, Lin made minimum wage in a clothing factory and Emily, 3, went to subsidized daycare.

They share a one-bedroom apartment in downtown Toronto with Lin's sister, Lisa, who pays half the rent. The $600 a month that Lisa gets as a refugee claimant is the only way they can afford to live in the flat.

Quxia Lin and her siblings grew up on a farm near Quanzhou, China. That's where she learned to cook meals like chicken parts, Chinese greens and rice, which are a cheaper option than buying pre-packaged food.

The only way Lin can make ends meet now is by stocking up at the local food bank on things that she can't afford to buy, such as diapers, fresh milk and formula. After rent, she has only a couple of hundred dollars a month to live on.

Seeking nourishment

On any given day, almost half the people lining up at the Fort York Food Bank in west-end Toronto are recent immigrants.

Ravi Sreedharan, the president and founding member of this offshoot of the Daily Bread Food Bank, says the average income levels of the people who use this facility are well below Statistics Canada's definition of the poverty line.

They survive on an average of less than three dollars a day after rent.

Sreedharan, who volunteers at FYFB and works full-time as a manager at Ernst & Young, says "new and recent immigrants have more challenges when they first come to Canada finding that first job and struggling to get started.

“It also can take a while before they get familiar with social programs on offer. But once they find their feet, they stabilize and are less reliant on food banks."

Every Saturday, the Fort York Food Bank is buzzing with people — many of them Chinese seniors — in need of food and camaraderie.

Sreedharan says isolation among older immigrants is almost as problematic as the concern about going hungry.

"A good number of [the people who come in] are surviving on limited pensions from China, and this is where they socialize,” he says.

Sreedharan says he is proud of the way the Fort York Food Bank puts 95 per cent of its resources "directly towards program delivery.”

Many of the volunteers at the FYFB have relied on food banks or still do.

Lin's sister, Lisa, is both a volunteer and someone who relies on the food bank to take groceries back to the house.

Came with high hopes

Quxia Lin says she had high hopes when she first came to Canada as the new wife of her Chinese-Canadian husband in 2001. But she says the marriage broke down in 2006 when she brought her mother from China to stay with them.

When her mother got sick with cancer, Lin’s brother and sister came over and applied for refugee status; both were denied. Their mother died in a Toronto palliative care hospital in 2010. Lin’s brother was sent back to China in November 2011, and now her sister will go back in January.

Quxia is understandably worried about where she will live when her sister goes back to China in January.

“Maybe I need to move out soon because my sister is going back to China and the rent is so expensive,” Quxia says.

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