'Troubling' new numbers show food bank use on the rise in Toronto, Mississauga


A new report says food bank use rose four per cent in the Greater Toronto Area in the last fiscal year and the number of visits from people who live in Mississauga and the inner suburbs of Toronto is growing.

There was a 16 per cent increase in food bank visits from Mississauga residents, a nine per cent increase from North York residents and an eight per cent increase in Scarborough residents.

Among people who live in central Toronto, food bank visits have decreased 11 per cent, but the report says this area continues to have the "highest concentration" of visits in the region.

In the report, "Who's Hungry: Profile of Hunger in the Toronto Region," the Daily Bread Food, the North York Harvest Food Bank and the Mississauga Food Bank say there were more than one million visits to food banks in the region between April 1, 2018 and March 31, 2019.

"These staggering numbers tell us that the right to food is not being realized in our communities. This is particularly true for low-income neighbourhoods and for people who are racialized, Indigenous or living with a disability," the report reads.

Hunger a symptom of poverty, report says

The report says hunger is a symptom of poverty and the increase in food bank visits in the last fiscal year, compared to the previous fiscal year, shows that food insecurity is growing in the Toronto region at double the rate of population growth.

"As poverty continues to soar and the hunger crisis worsens, our government bodies must do more to meet their legal obligations to respect, protect and fulfill the right to food. We cannot stand still as thousands of families and individuals across the city skip meals to feed their children or pay their rent," the report says.

Food Bank CEO says costs are rising but incomes are not

Neil Hetherington, CEO of the Daily Bread Food Bank in Toronto, said in an interview with CBC Toronto that food insecurity is an income issue. The report defines food insecurity as people or households unable to access the food they need because they cannot afford basic necessities.

"Incomes are not rising the way they ought to, individuals are in precarious employment, and the costs are rising and the study shows that and what individuals are paying on rent," Hetherington said.

"There's a growing divide between those who have and those who do not have. Those who are experiencing poverty are getting further away from being able to make ends meet," he added. 

"We didn't add operating hours. We didn't add food banks over the course of the year. It's a real number. It's troubling. Things were better this year economically than they were the year before. The balance sheet isn't adding up. Individuals are making less in real dollar terms and their costs are increasing."

Housing is at the core of an individual experiencing poverty, he added.

Hetherington said the the highest concentration of poverty still exists in the city core but poverty is clearly becoming a regional issue. In 2019, there were 936,807 food bank visits in Toronto, while there were 133,524 food bank visits in Mississauga.

Food bank use highest in areas where children are poor

In Toronto in particular, the four ridings with the highest per capita food bank use were Toronto Centre, Etobicoke North, Scarborough Guildwood and Humber River-Black Creek, areas which are also the highest concentration of child poverty rates in the region.

The report paints a picture of GTA food bank users: 51 per cent of respondents said they were single, while 16 per cent said they were single parents; 38 per cent reported being between the ages of 19 and 44; and 67 per cent said they were renters. Eighty-six per cent reported spending more than 30 per cent of their income on housing.

Hetherington pointed out that 40 per cent of survey respondents had completed post-secondary education.

"Residents of Toronto and Mississauga are struggling with food insecurity regardless of their education levels," the report says.

The report notes that food costs have increased by 7.5 per cent in Toronto, compared to four per cent across Canada, and of the people surveyed, 87 per cent said they changed their shopping and consumption habits because of the increase in food prices. 

Respondents said they shopped at discounted grocery stores, used coupons, bought only items on sale, reduced the amount of food they bought and bought more affordable but less quality food, and increased their use of food banks.

People skip meals to pay for rent, phone, transportation

The top three reasons that respondents skipped meals were having to pay for rent, phone bills and transportation. 

The report says debt was the only way that many respondents could survive, and 37 per cent reported borrowing from friends or family, 31 per cent reported using a credit card, 12 per cent reported using a payday lender and 10 per cent reported using a line of credit.

"When coping strategies are not sufficient enough to make ends meet, people in the Toronto region can turn to a food bank to help fulfil their basic needs," the report reads.

The report calls on governments to: strengthen social assistance; support low-income households by expanding tax benefits and creating ways out of poverty; invest in affordable housing and tenant protections; improve access to affordable childcare; make a commitment to ensure there is access to "affordable, nutritious, [and] culturally appropriate" food in every community; keep human rights in mind when making decisions to ensure policies are equitable.

The Daily Break Food Bank surveys food bank use every year to track trends, and this year the Mississauga Food Bank joined the agency in the survey to provide a broader snapshot of the problem in the GTA. 

The food banks pulled information from a database called Link2Feed to track the number of visits. They surveyed people at 51 food banks across Toronto and Mississauga from late February to mid-May in 2019, using a 44-question survey.

In total, 1,403 surveys were collected and 1,326 were deemed sufficiently completed to be included in the analysis.