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First-time users of Ontario food banks spike by 20 per cent: report

TORONTO – The number of households in Ontario turning to food banks for the first time appeared to increase significantly this year, according to an annual survey by the Ontario Association of Food Banks.

In a report released Monday, the association compared food bank usage from March this year to the same month last year and found a 20 per cent spike in first time users.

That meant 17,182 households accessed food banks this March compared to 14,206 households last year.

“That is huge,” association spokeswoman Amanda King said of the jump.

While a number of factors could contribute to individuals accessing food banks for the first time, King said the figures were likely a reflection of the changing employment landscape in Ontario.

READ MORE: 5 common myths about food bank use in Canada

“Currently in Ontario there are 1.7 million jobs that are considered insecure. Since the 2008 recession, of the jobs created in Canada, 80 per cent have been temporary positions,” she said. “That means people with full-time jobs are still having trouble making ends meet.”

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While first-time usage increased, the report noted that overall, Ontario’s food banks were used by 374,698 people in March – a figure which was slightly lower than the 375,814 individuals who used the services last year.

But the year-over-year dip is a small one, noted King.

“I think the biggest message is that it’s still astronomically high,” she said of food bank usage. “It’s too many hungry people.”

When the monthly figures are extrapolated, the OAFB estimates 770,000 individuals use food banks in a year.

The report noted that since 2009, monthly food bank use has not gone below 370,000 individuals. Before the recession, 314,000 people used food banks in March 2008.

The month of March is used in the association’s annual survey because it has been determined as the most “neutral” month, unlike the summer months when children may not benefit from school meal programs, or December, which is impacted by the year-end holidays, King said.

The report found that 46 per cent of food bank users are single-individual households and 35 per cent of users are children.

“People often think that people accessing food banks are ‘riding the system.’ That is so incredibly inaccurate,” said King.

“The social services being provided by the government are insufficient and as a result people have to look to external sources to make ends meet.”

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The report is calling on the provincial government to implement a monthly Ontario housing benefit for low income tenants based on their rent and income, and is also urging an increase in payments and updates to Ontario’s social assistance programs.

“Hunger is not actually the problem, hunger is a symptom of the problem, which is poverty. Fundamentally people do not have the means to afford basic living in Ontario and that is an issue,” said King

The report is also asking the government to provide funding for the transportation of fresh food for Ontario’s most vulnerable communities.

“When people think of a food bank they think of it as a place for non perishable food that’s given out maybe in a hamper but food banks have grown so far beyond that,” said King. “Food banks are very much becoming hubs for social innovation.”

The Ontario Association of Food Banks is a network of 125 food banks and more than 1,100 hunger relief programs and agencies across the province.