Whether you’ve read it online or in your morning paper, caught an interview on your favourite TV news broadcast or listened to it on your morning drive, the subject of inflation, and the increased need it is creating at your local food bank is making headlines as we move through 2022.
But is the direct cause of food bank use in communities across the province really inflation?
Let’s take a look at this idea. Here’s what we know:
- Food is getting expensive. The Globe and Mail reported that a perfect storm of factors have resulted in a 5.7% inflation increase over the past year. They are calling this the sharpest increase in a decade and noting that increases will likely continue for some time.
- Rising gas prices are increasing the cost of everything. From the price at the pump to the increased costs they present to transporting goods and services, including food, the price of gas is definitely straining our budgets.
- If you can find housing, it’s going cost a lot. As reported by Global News in January, housing prices in Ontario rose 17.1% in 2021 and are forecasted to increase another 10% in 2022.
As the umbrella organization for food banks across Ontario, Feed Ontario produces an annual Hunger Report. The report identifies and tracks trends related to food bank use in the province. In 2021 we revealed that the cost of food is certainly putting pressure on household budgets. That is resulting in more pressure on food banks to fill the gap.
Between April 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021, Ontario food banks helped 592,000 individuals. This is an increase of 10% over the previous period and the largest single-year increase since 2009. Additionally, over the last 4 years, the proportion of employed adults accessing a food bank has grown by 44%. We also know that 2 out of 3 food bank visitors who responded to a recent survey reported that they have less than $100 left after paying for housing and utilities each month.
It certainly sounds as though controlling inflation solves the problem, but let’s dig a little deeper.
SOCIAL ASSISTANCE INCOMES HAVE BEEN STAGNANT FOR YEARS.
In the 2021 Hunger Report, Feed Ontario noted that social assistance program recipients received $646 – $1,422 less income than needed to simply reach the poverty line each month. It isn’t surprising then, that so many recipients must turn to food banks to make ends meet. Let’s also consider that social assistance has remained unchanged, despite a 12% increase in the cost of living, since 2018. Ontario Works (OW) still provides only $733 per month and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) provides $1,169 monthly, making social assistance incomes a major driver of food bank use.
HOUSING INVESTMENTS WILL NOT BE ENOUGH TO MEET ONTARIO’S GROWING NEEDS.
Unaffordable housing can cause people to have to choose between paying rent or buying groceries. This makes social and affordable housing great options that can help low-income families afford both. The National Housing Strategy, launched in 2017, will only support 55,300 new households in need by 2027, This will not meet the projected need.
THE MINIMUM WAGE IS STILL NOT A LIVING WAGE.
Even before the pandemic, Ontario’s food banks were seeing a dramatic rise in the number of employed individuals accessing their services. This is in part because Ontario has the highest proportion of minimum wage jobs in Canada. As of 2019, 48% of minimum wage workers were over the age of 25, 45% were working full-time, and 35% have post-secondary educations. Despite recent increases to the minimum wage, wages still aren’t keeping up with inflation, and the minimum wage falls well below the living wage in every region of Ontario.
Let’s consider a BIG solution: reduce poverty.
Feed Ontario works with member food banks across the province to increase awareness and promote evidence-based policy solutions. We engage in advocacy at all levels of government.
With Ontario’s election around the corner, we are putting forward three big ideas. They focus on improving access to income and affordability in our province, and perhaps will one day, put food banks out of business.
- End legislated poverty
Matching social assistance to the $2,000 benchmark set by Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) in 2020 and pegging future increases to inflation can help people from choosing between paying for rent or groceries.
- Make housing affordable
14% of Ontarians live in precarious housing or core housing need. Investment in the creation and repair of more social and supportive housing units, beyond what is outlined in the National Housing Strategy, and strengthening the laws to protect tenants will keep more Ontarians in appropriate and affordable housing.
- Decent jobs for all
As of 2019, Ontario had the highest proportion of minimum wage jobs in the country. Increasing minimum wage and improving and expanding the Employment Standards Act to protect workers would help alleviate minimum wage workers or contract workers from having to choose between paying the rent or buying food, and allow them to build a financial cushion for emergencies, retirement, or unplanned expenses.
The story of inflation and the increased cost of living will continue to be a focus of our conversations, because in some way, we are all feeling it in our pocketbook, every day. However, for those on a tight budget, the impact is harder, often forcing families to choose between having a roof over their head, food on the table, or obtaining the health services they need.
While we can’t control prices at the pump or solve the housing crisis tomorrow, there are things we can do. We can begin to change the conversation. We can dig a little deeper into the root causes of food bank use and build a province where our social safety nets and employment opportunities help to ensure that no one goes hungry.