Feed Ontario released its 2020 Hunger Report on December 1, revealing that even prior to COVID-19 food bank use was on the rise. The report points to Ontario’s insufficient social assistance programs, a growth in precarious employment, and a lack of affordable housing in the province as the primary reasons that more than 537,000 people accessed a food bank, visiting more than 3.2 million times, in the year leading up to the pandemic.

The 2020 Hunger Report also includes a special feature on the impact of COVID-19 on food bank use and vulnerable populations across the province. This includes the survey results from close to 200 food bank visitors in September who spoke to the devastating impact that the pandemic is having on their daily lives and their ability to afford even their most basic expenses, such as rent, heat, hydro, transportation, and food.

“COVID-19 compounded the extreme challenges that were already being faced by low-income Ontarians across the province, one of the most significant being how difficult it is for low-income adults and families to afford rent or housing each month,” says Carolyn Stewart, Executive Director, Feed Ontario. “This is exemplified in our survey results, which revealed that 1 out of 2 food bank visitors is now worried about facing eviction or defaulting on their mortgage in the next two to six months.”

As detailed in the report, over 85 percent of food bank visitors are rental or social housing tenants that spend the majority of their monthly income on housing. The report argues that this leaves very little for all other necessities, and makes it near impossible for low-income people to establish savings or a financial cushion to help offset income loss or unexpected expenses during times of emergency.

“In addition to growing concerns about eviction, the survey revealed that over 93 percent of respondents are navigating the financial challenges created by the pandemic by borrowing money from friends or family, accessing payday loans, or using credit cards to help pay bills,” says Stewart. “What makes this incredibly concerning is that as the pandemic continues it will put progressively more stress on low-income people as they incur larger debts and work to stretch every dollar even further.”

The report argues that not only will increased debt contribute to increased anxiety, but that it will make it even more difficult for low-income individuals to get back on their feet once COVID-19 is over. Further, the report details that in addition to incurring more debt, many adults and families have no choice but to go without food in order to afford monthly expenses, with rent, utilities, and phone/internet being the most common expenses that are causing someone to miss a meal. As one survey respondent stated, “Prices have gone up. My hydro bill has almost doubled since last year this time. Choosing to pay bills and put food last has been happening for me.”

Ontario’s food banks are working hard to navigate the challenges created by the pandemic and to meet the demand in their communities as individuals and families turn to them for support, many for the very first time. As noted in the 2020 Hunger Report, provincial and federal government support programs and benefits played a significant role in helping food banks to meet an initial surge in demand with the onset of COVID-19 and throughout the summer; however, as these supports wind down, food banks are growing increasingly concerned as they head into the winter months.

“Government intervention and support, like CERB and the moratorium on evictions, played a significant role in helping families avoid financial catastrophe and homelessness throughout the spring and summer; however, as many of these supports come to an end, food banks have started to see an increasing number of people turning to them for assistance,” says Stewart. “In comparing September 2019 to September 2020, our hunger-relief network has already seen a 10 percent increase in food bank visits across the province.”

Feed Ontario is calling on the Government of Ontario to provide immediate support to low-income adults and families impacted by the pandemic, including the development of a rent relief or payment program for tenants facing rent arrears or eviction due to COVID-19, as well as the reinstatement of the Emergency Benefit for social assistance recipients.

Further, Feed Ontario is calling on the provincial government to align Ontario’s social assistance rates with the national standard set by CERB, and to invest in strengthening the workforce by developing strong labour laws and policies that benefit hard-working people, including the reinstatement of paid sick days and quality job opportunities that provide a livable wage.

“Food banks are working tirelessly to meet an unprecedented demand that we believe will continue long after the pandemic and that could eventually exceed the capacity of our network,” says Stewart. “Immediate investments that address and prevent poverty are essential to our collective ability to navigate this crisis and ensure that adults and families do not fall into poverty or deep levels of poverty as a result of the pandemic.”

Feed Ontario believes that its vision of ending poverty and hunger is shared by all levels of government, and that there has never been a greater need for collective action than there is today.

2020 Hunger Report Highlights and Trends

  • Food Bank Use Data (leading up to COVID-19)
    • 537,575 adults, children, and seniors accessed food banks across Ontario between April 1st 2019 – March 31st, 2020, an increase of 5.3% over the previous year, and 7.8% over the last two years.
    • Ontario’s food banks were visited over 3,282,500 times throughout the year, an increase of 7.3% over the previous year, and 11.8% over the last two years.
    • The primary drivers of food bank use are: Ontario’s insufficient social assistance programs, precarious employment, and unaffordable housing
      • 65.7% of food bank visitors cite social assistance as their primary source of income
      • 44% increase in the number of people with employment accessing food banks in the last four years
      • 86% of food bank visitors are rental or social housing tenants who spend the majority of their monthly income on rent
  • Impact of COVID-19 on food bank use and vulnerable people
    • In surveying close to 200 food bank visitors throughout September it was found that:
      • 1 out of 2 food bank visitors are worried about eviction or defaulting on their mortgage in the next two to six months
      • 93% of food bank visitors borrowed money from friends and family, accessed a payday loan, or used a credit card to help pay for monthly necessities
      • The top three expenses that caused a survey respondent to miss a meal were rent, utilities, and phone/internet
  • Food Bank Response to COVID-19
    • With the onset of COVID-19, Ontario’s food banks rapidly shifted their operations in a wide variety of ways to meet the demand in their communities while adhering to physical distancing and safety guidelines, including:
      • 81% of food banks implemented a new emergency food support program
      • 77% increased the amount of food provided to reduce the number of visits
      • 64% initiated a home delivery service
      • 41% began operating as an appointment model food bank
      • 21% initiated a drive-thru service

To download a full copy of the 2020 Hunger Report, or to find out more about food banks in Ontario, please visit: www.feedontario.ca

About Feed Ontario:

From securing fresh and healthy food sources to driving change through policy research and innovative programming, Feed Ontario unites food banks, industry partners, and local communities in its work to end poverty and hunger. Join Feed Ontario and help build a healthier province. Every $1 raised provides the equivalent of 3 meals to an Ontarian in need. Learn more at: www.feedontario.ca