TORONTO – Food bank visits in Canada’s most populous city are back up to levels seen after the last recession hit the country, with a spike in the number of seniors accessing their services in the last year, according to a report released Monday.
The Daily Bread Food Bank‘s annual report shows that there were nearly one million food bank visits in Toronto between April last year and March this year. The figure is the highest number in the city since 2010, which is when the organization says the effects of the 2008 recession hit residents the hardest.
It also says people are relying on food banks longer than before with the average length increasing to 24 months in 2017, up from 12 months in 2010.
The numbers suggest a state of affairs that is not being captured by standard economic indicators, the food bank said.
“While we’re having this on-paper economic prosperity, we’re seeing many people who are falling out of the labour market due to age or disability or people who are struggling within the labour market because of the instability of the work that they’re getting,” said Richard Matern, Daily Bread’s director of research and communications.
Though people 65 and over make up a relatively small proportion of food bank users, they have become the fastest-rising age group of clients, the report says. The number of seniors accessing food banks has gone up nearly 27 per cent since last year, compared with other age groups which have shown an increase between 14 and 18 per cent, it says.
“What we saw is what happens when there’s a group that’s on a fixed income (and) is particularly vulnerable to rising costs like we saw in Toronto in the areas of housing and in food, in certain cases,” Matern said.
LISTEN: Richard Matern of the Daily Bread Food Bank joins Tasha Kheiriddin on AM640
“Many seniors, the most common reason that they’ve had to skip food for, they say, is rent and also prescription drugs,” he said.
“So many seniors who are of course less likely to be getting support from other sources or who are less likely to be able to get outside sources of income such as employment and also have greater health-care needs are more vulnerable to these types of changes in the economy around inflation.”
Wanda Morris, vice-president of advocacy for CARP, formerly known as the Canadian Association for Retired Persons, said the rise in food bank use among seniors is “a huge concern.”
One factor may be that seniors aren’t getting all the support they are entitled to, she said, particularly through the Guaranteed Income Supplement program.
Low-income seniors are eligible for the program if they receive Old Age Security, have an annual income below a specific threshold and have lived in Canada at least 10 years. But research shows thousands of seniors who qualify aren’t claiming it, Morris said.
“Part of the problem isn’t that there isn’t a program, it’s how do we get our most vulnerable seniors to take advantage of what is available for them,” she said, noting that many seniors don’t have internet access.
She said housing costs are also an issue for people on a fixed income.
Daily Bread said its findings “reinforce the observation that the current system of income support is inadequate to deal with the labour market, economic realities and an aging population.”
Two government initiatives – one provincial, one federal – may help alleviate the strain on low-income residents, Matern said.
Ontario’s basic income pilot project is being rolled out in several municipalities, including Hamilton and Thunder Bay, Ont., in an effort to reduce poverty. The federal government, meanwhile, is working on a national housing strategy meant to increase access to affordable homes.
Matern said the food bank is asking Ottawa to ensure the strategy includes a portable housing benefit that would be given to tenants to help cover their rent.
“If that’s implemented, it would have a huge impact on helping to address the need,” he said.
The report is based on in-person surveys of more than 1,400 food bank clients and visit data from food banks across the city.