If Ontario wants to lower food bank use it needs to raise income supports, report warns

Governments need to continue to raise the minimum wage and social support benefits in the face of inflation and rent increases if they want to keep food bank usage from rising, researchers and advocates warn.

According to a research paper released Wednesday by University of Calgary researchers on Toronto’s Daily Bread Food Bank visits from January 2014 to March 2020, usage increased by 53 per cent and correlated most strongly with the rise in rent and food prices.

“Payments are not keeping up with inflation,” said Ron Kneebone, the scientific director of Social Policy and Health research at the University of Calgary, who co-wrote the report.

“You’re going to see more and more people having to rely on food banks in order to make ends meet.”

The report comes amid a sharp increase in the use of GTA food banks since the start of the pandemic. Its findings show visits are influenced by changes — or the lack of them — in income support rates, with the most significant influence being the amount of money users get under the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). Daily Bread says about 51 per cent of its clients report having a disability or health condition expected to last a year or more. About one in four of Daily Bread’s users report ODSP as their primary source of income.

Daily Bread, which runs largely on charitable donations of money and food and the labour of volunteers, says the study’s findings suggest:

  • An increase of $30 in average rents would lead to 73,776 more visits to food banks annually in Toronto and 375,000 more visits across Ontario.
  • A $1 increase in minimum wage would lead to 37,000 fewer visits to food banks annually in Toronto and 188,000 fewer visits across Ontario.
  • An increase of $15 per month in ODSP would be associated with 54,000 fewer visits to food banks annually in Toronto and 273,000 fewer visits across Ontario.

Kneebone says the government needs social programs to keep up with the rate of inflation, especially if more people turn to programs like ODSP in the years ahead.

“There’s an easy solution to this — you need to increase their levels of income support,” said Kneebone.

‘A spiral situation’

Neil Hetherington, the CEO of Daily Bread, says the report is the first look the organization has had at systemic policies that can influence the number of food bank visits.

“We have got all of the food out to every single person needing it,” said Hetherington. “But let’s start to think about the systems that are resulting in so many people having to turn to the Daily Bread.”

Hetherington says before the pandemic, the food bank saw about 55,000 visitors each month. But this February alone, it had about 130,000 visits. Like consumers who are trying to cope with inflation at supermarkets, the organization is also juggling the increase in the price of food, and reduced contributions from donors who might be having a harder time making ends meet themselves.

“It becomes a bit of a spiral situation.”

Neil Hetherington, CEO of the Daily Bread Food Bank, says the report gives a blueprint to government on how to cut down people’s reliance on food banks. (Talia Ricci/CBC)

Hetherington worries the situation will worsen if the findings aren’t used to inform government policy.

“What we’re doing is we’re giving a gift to government and we’re saying, ‘Okay, if you care, if you fundamentally care that somebody has to go to a food charity to be able to survive, then here’s what it will cost to be able to diminish that challenge.'”

CBC News asked the Ontario Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services about what it’s doing to raise income supports in relation to inflation.The ministry’s director of communications Krystle Caputo replied in an email that it has already invested billions in organizations in its Social Services Relief Fund and millions in Feed Ontario and student nutrition programs.

“We remain committed to innovative ways to support Ontarians receiving social assistance, and Minister [Merrilee] Fullerton will be discussing expediting the Canadian Disability Benefit in a follow-up meeting with our federal counterparts shortly.”

‘It’s never been enough’

People on ODSP were struggling to make ends meet long before COVID-19 arrived, and the pandemic has only strengthened calls to increase rates, says Kyle Vose, the agency co-chair of the ODSP Action Coalition, a group that advocates for people with disabilities in Ontario.

“It’s never been enough,” said Vose.

Despite the rising inflation rate and the doubling in growth of ODSP cases in the past decade, ODSP rates have not increased since 2018, according to reports from the Income Security Advocacy Centre, a legal clinic based in Toronto that works to address issues related to income security and poverty in Ontario.

The maximum monthly payment for a single person is $672 for basic needs and $497 for shelter, for a total of $1,169. In comparison, the most a single person could receive from ODSP in 2012 was $1,064, according to the centre.

 While food banks help fill the gap, there are often limits on how many times people can use them per month, and who can get access to them outside the city, says Vose.

Kyle Vose is the agency co-chair of the ODSP Action Coalition and an engagement coordinator with the Toronto People with AIDS Foundation. (Talia Ricci/CBC)

Vose says the report shows that forcing people with disabilities to rely on donations and the goodwill of others is not the answer.

“The government expects us to depend on charity,” said Vose.

“That’s not right. Just because you’re a person with a disability, doesn’t mean that you deserve less than.”

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