2013 Food bank use persists in Ontario, report finds

Ontario food bank use is down this year, but still above pre-recession levels, according to latest report.

About 45 per cent of Canadians who rely on food banks live in Ontario, according to a new report being released Monday.

And one-third of the 375,000 Ontarians who use a food bank every month are under age 18, says the Ontario Association of Food Banks’ 2013 Hunger Report.

Although the overall number of food bank users this year is down from last year’s record high of almost 413,000, it is still more than in 2008, when the global economic recession hit, the report says.

“Ontario has really been hit much harder than any other province by the loss of good-paying jobs that aren’t coming back,” said the association’s executive director Bill Laidlaw. “It’s a sad thing when you think close to 50 per cent of the food-bank users are now in Ontario.”

The sobering statistics come on the eve of the 5th anniversary Wednesday of Ontario’s pledge to cut child poverty by 25 per cent by the end of this year.

The report also highlights the need to “put food in the budget,” say anti-poverty activists who are staging a “Poor People’s Inquiry” in Toronto this week into whether Premier Kathleen Wynne is living up to her commitment to make social justice her “top priority.”

Due to a three-year lag in Statistics Canada data reporting, the province won’t know for another two years if it has met its five-year goal of lifting some 90,000 children out of poverty.

But activists doubt it will be possible. They say the province’s 2012 austerity budget that delayed increases to the Ontario Child Benefit and kept social assistance hikes to a meagre 1 per cent in each of the past two years, have undermined progress.

“If Premier Wynne is serious about turning the page on austerity, as she said this fall, she needs to show the government is ready to redouble its efforts to fight poverty,” said Jennefer Laidley of the Income Security Advocacy Centre, a legal aid clinic that supports people on social assistance.

The next five-year provincial poverty reduction strategy, expected in the spring, must build on the first pledge by aiming to cut poverty by 50 per cent by 2019, she said. And it should start strong by making significant investments in the first two years, she added.

Since the average food bank user spends 71 per cent of their income on housing, a provincial housing benefit, updates to social assistance, more job training and a livable minimum wage would help, the Hunger Report notes.

“As a province with so much, there is no reason that any child should have to go to bed hungry, or that any adult or senior should have to skip meals simply because they cannot afford it,” the report says.

One of the most serious issues for people living in poverty is food, notes Melissa Addison-Webster of the “Put Food in the Budget” campaign which is staging the Poor People’s Inquiry at several local community drop-in programs this week.

“The inquiry will give people the opportunity to really question whether Premier Wynne’s small changes to social assistance have really put food in people’s budget,” said Addison-Webster, a quadriplegic who struggles to survive on Ontario Disability Support Program payments.

Welfare changes in the Liberals’ spring budget allowed people on social assistance to keep up to $200 a month in part-time earnings before facing welfare clawbacks. It also raised welfare rates by $20 a month to $626 for single people on Ontario Works, whose incomes are the lowest.

But because welfare rates have not kept up with inflation, most people on social assistance are not feeling much better off, Addison-Webster said.

The group is calling on Wynne to boost welfare rates by $100 a month as a “down payment” on welfare reform.

“People feel it is hard to speak out,” she said. “Being poor is so stigmatizing. You are made to feel it is your fault you can’t find a good job because all the manufacturing jobs have gone to China. It’s your fault that you have to re-educate yourself to find another job.”