In this season of gifts, feasting and abundance, it can be easy to forget the many people in our communities who are facing empty cupboards and are struggling to make ends meet. Yet, as the Ontario Association of Food Banks revealed in our 2017 Hunger Report, this past year there were nearly half a million Ontarians who turned to a food bank for support. Even though Ontario has Canada's largest and fastest-growing economy, so many of our neighbours are being left behind.
When we look more closely at the numbers, we begin to see a clearer picture as to who those people are. Children remain the largest individual group of food bank users, with 1 in 3 clients under the age of 18.
While we have seen some improvement in this area, as the proportion of children accessing food banks dropped 7 percentage points since 2007, children still remain disproportionately at risk of hunger. Young children are particularly vulnerable: 20% of food bank clients are 9 or under, even though they represent only 11% of the general population. This is a troubling statistic, given how essential proper nutrition is to a child's cognitive development, physical health, and overall well-being.
Another growing demographic is single-person households, which now represent half the households that visit food banks, as compared to only 25% of all households in Ontario. Single-person food bank clients tend to be older and male, compared to the general food bank population. Individuals who live alone are at greater risk of financial insecurity, as there is only one income to support all basic living expenses. They are also more vulnerable to sudden losses of income, and have fewer government benefits available to them.
We also found that over 50% of food bank clients visited three times in a year or less, utilizing the food bank only when it was most needed or to move beyond a temporary rough patch before getting back on their feet. There were also a significant number of clients who visited 12 or more times during the year, indicating a group of people who are facing chronic need. This is unsurprising, as two-thirds of clients indicate social assistance as their primary source of income, which is often insufficient when compared to the cost of basic necessities like rent, transportation, heat, hydro, medicine and food.
The rising cost of housing has been taxing for many food bank clients. Almost 90% of food bank clients live in rental or social housing, with 45% indicating that they have less than $100 left over each month after paying for their basic needs. Single people are particularly vulnerable here, too: since 2005, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment grew faster than the rate of inflation, while employment income grew more slowly. Rent is also near-impossible to afford when on social assistance.
In the Hunger Report, we examined the average rent of a one-bedroom apartment in 10 Ontario cities, and compared each to social assistance rates for single people. We found that Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) recipients would need to commit more than 60% of their income to rent, far above the 30% level that's considered to be affordable, and for those on Ontario Works (OW), average rent exceeded their total income in all but two cities.
Food banks were created in the 80's as a temporary solution to hunger while the government developed long-term policies and programs to address poverty. Unfortunately, a solution to poverty has not yet been found. Social assistance rates still do not reflect the cost of living, the availability of affordable or purpose-built rental housing does not meet the need, and the job market is growing ever-more precarious.
With all these factors in mind, is it a surprise that so many Ontarians need to use a food bank? Over the last four decades, food banks have evolved with the changing conditions and needs of their clients. Many have become innovative, multi-service agencies that offer additional programs to supplement their emergency food assistance.
For instance, in response to the increasingly high cost of housing, many food banks are providing some form of rental assistance and subsidy programs. The Carr family is one of the families assisted by the Grimsby Benevolent Fund's Rent Supplement program so they can continue to live and work in Grimsby. They said of their experience that "asking for helping is the hardest thing to do. But nobody at GBF made us feel guilty or embarrassed. They understand difficult times can happen to good people."
Nancy, a single mother of two children from Sarnia, needed help paying rent while looking for a job and waiting for child support payments to come through. The Inn of the Good Shepherd set her up with a Housing Assistance worker to create a budget and provide her with rent assistance so she could avoid eviction.
She says, "I am an example of everyday life going sideways. Life can take twists and turns and create obstacles in which we must reach out for help. I am thankful for the assistance provided to me." While food banks work hard to ensure that Ontarians in need have access to fresh, healthy food and a variety of programs and support services, these efforts cannot replace an adequate social safety net that addresses poverty and ensures that no one goes hungry.
To donate to the Ontario Association of Food Banks this holiday season, please visit www.oafb.ca/donate