Food banks in Canada have seen a major surge in visits throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, a new report says, with the high cost of living and ongoing economic disruption threatening to create countless new clients in the months ahead.
The findings are contained in the newly-released HungerCount 2021 report from Food Banks Canada, which surveyed almost all of Canada's 4,750-plus food banks and community organizations. It's the first comprehensive look at food bank usage across the country since before the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We're seeing high food prices, we're seeing high housing prices, we're seeing an anticipated pullback of government and we're seeing high unemployment continuing through the COVID pandemic," said David Armour, CEO of Food Banks Canada.
"With all of these factors, we're seeing … a really high increase in demand and food banks are bracing for a significant increase in the months to come."
The report highlights how the pandemic has exacerbated hunger in Canada, and advocates are now calling for a major overhaul of the country's social safety net to reduce poverty and food insecurity.
Strain especially felt in large cities
The report says Canadians made 1.3 million visits to food banks in March 2021, a 20.3 per cent increase compared to March 2019, which is the sharpest rise since the 2008 economic recession. (Food Banks Canada says it consistently uses March for comparisons because it is an "unexceptional month, without predictable high- or low-use patterns.")
Food banks in large cities like Toronto were especially strained, with over a quarter seeing their usage more than double compared to previous years.
Most who visited did so as a result of pandemic-related unemployment, the report says, with people from racialized communities making up a large proportion.
Meanwhile, it said food banks in smaller urban centres were more likely to see people with disabilities and older individuals looking for food.
"Much of the increase can be attributed to a greater number of people requiring more frequent visits to the food bank because of the combined impacts of low income and rapidly rising costs of living," the report read.
Neil Hetherington, CEO of the Daily Bread Food Bank in Etobicoke, said Toronto food banks saw an even more dramatic increase in visits than the national average, with 50 per cent more people in need of food support than before the pandemic.
He said this is the first year that there will be more first-time food bank users in the city than repeat users.
"It is the largest, most unprecedented increase in food bank usage that we've seen both in Toronto and across the country," Hetherington said.
"There are a lot of new faces to the Toronto food banks and it just speaks to the lack of resiliency that there is in the community, the lack of affordable housing and the lack of decent employment."
Food Banks Canada says government programs that provided income and housing support to individuals who lost their jobs or had their hours reduced when the pandemic struck were helpful in "flattening the curve" of food bank visits, and likely prevented even more people from requiring the services of food banks.
But most of those programs have now been eliminated, are in the process of being wound down or have been modified to provide more targeted support.
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Improve social safety net, CEO says
Armour, the CEO of Food Banks Canada, said governments should take this opportunity to improve existing social policies that target the root causes of food insecurity — mainly low-incomes, unemployment, housing costs and poverty.
"Our social safety net is broken," he said. "And as we come out of the pandemic, as we shift our funding and shift our government attention, we really need to build and modernize a better safety net."
The report calls for the following measures to help reduce poverty and, along with it, food insecurity:
New support for low-income renters.
Increase support for low-wage and unemployed workers, primarily through modernizing the employment insurance (EI) program.
Consider policies that would establish a "minimum income floor" for all workers.
Increase supports for low-income single adults.
Enhance measures to reduce food insecurity in the North.