Rising Cost of Living Drives Millions of Canadians to Food Banks

by Ella

The cost of living in Canada has reached alarming heights, driving millions of Canadians to seek assistance from food banks. As the struggle to make ends meet intensifies, stories of food scarcity and growing lines outside support organizations are becoming increasingly common.

One such scene unfolds every Friday outside a modest church located on College Street in downtown Toronto. Here, individuals queue around the block, awaiting a hot casserole, rice, and perhaps a serving of fruit and yogurt if supplies allow. The food program, administered by St. Stephen-in-the-Fields church, led by Rev. Canon Maggie Helwig, has seen an alarming spike in demand, serving 130 people for dinner on Fridays compared to just two dozen a few years ago.


The situation worsens on the weekends, with hundreds of parents, seniors, students, working adults, and unemployed individuals queuing for breakfast on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Rev. Canon Maggie Helwig expressed her concerns, stating, “Every week we are scrambling. Every week we run out of food and start foraging in the cupboards and in the freezers for something that we can give to people. It’s terrifying.”


This growing demand is not unique to this church in Toronto. A recent report from Food Banks Canada, released on Wednesday, revealed that food bank usage has surged to its highest level since the survey’s inception in 1989. The annual HungerCount report relies on surveys sent to food security organizations, monitoring their usage in March. In March 2023 alone, the report found that nearly two million Canadians, including more employed individuals than ever before, sought assistance from food banks, marking a 32% increase from the same period the previous year and a 78% rise compared to March 2019.


This alarming data has not surprised those on the front lines of food security programs, who have been working tirelessly to meet the growing demand. Larry Mathieson, who manages the Unison for Generations 50+ program for older adults in Calgary, emphasizes that the issue is not a lack of food but the inability to afford it. The study pointed out that 17% of clients in 2023 had jobs but did not earn enough to cover their basic needs.


The increased demand is not confined to a specific region; it is a nationwide issue. Food banks across the country are grappling with the situation, with some stating that their annual funding needs to double to keep up with the crisis. In places like Carbonear, N.L., former donors are now seeking assistance, while organizations in Crapaud, P.E.I., have had to turn people away due to overwhelming demand.

The report indicates that the rising cost of living is pushing more families to rely on school food programs. However, even these programs are feeling the pinch from skyrocketing grocery prices.

Of grave concern is the fact that more than 640,000 children under 18 used food banks in the same time frame, accounting for a third of the total number of clients. The number of newcomers seeking assistance, those who have lived in Canada for less than a decade, has doubled since 2016. Racialized individuals now make up nearly 40% of the food bank client base, up from 32% the previous year. Notably, nearly half of Indigenous people who participated in the report said they’d gone hungry within the last year, compared to just 15% of the white population.

Low social assistance rates have also played a role in driving high demand. The report found that more than 40% of clients received provincial income assistance, either general welfare or disability support, as their primary source of income. However, the report stated that assistance rates are too low in every province and territory to lift many households above the poverty line.

The report offers several recommendations to address food insecurity, including better support for those on low incomes, the creation of more affordable housing, and improved financial assistance for seniors on fixed pensions. The key, it suggests, is addressing both low incomes and the soaring costs of living, rather than focusing on one issue in isolation.

For churches like St. Stephen-in-the-Fields, donations and food rescue programs are essential to keep their services running, despite facing the same challenges as those they serve. Volunteers and donors are feeling the pinch of rising grocery bills. While no one is turned away, the support may not always meet the standards they would wish for, with Rev. Canon Maggie Helwig remarking, “It’s sometimes definitely not what we would want to be giving people.”



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