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Households in Ontario are more food insecure than ever before, finds new U of T report

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Nearly one in five households in Ontario is struggling to put food on the table, according to a new study.

The recently released report, titled Household food insecurity in Canada, 2022, found that food insecurity experienced by households in Ontario is the highest-ever recorded rate since this data started being collected by Statistics Canada in 2005.

According to the study, prepared by a University of Toronto-based household food insecurity research program called PROOF, 18.7 percent of all families in Ontario do not have enough food to eat. This is up from 16.1 per cent of food insecure households in the province in 2021.

These latest figures roughly translate to 2.8 million people, including almost 700,000 children in Ontario.

The study also found that more than half of all households in the province that rely on social assistance are experiencing food insecurity.

Further, it showed that almost 60 per cent of all of households in Ontario that have been deemed food insecure have members in the workforce, which means that having a job does not guarantee that a family can afford the basic necessities.

“The wages and the stability of work just isn’t there. Even with the latest wage increase in October (to $16.55), it’s still not enough,” Tim Li, PROOF’s research project coordinator, told CP24.com.

In this file photo, a recipient stacks his provisions in a cart at the Grant African Methodist Episcopal Church's Food Bank in Toronto on Friday March 20, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

The data for Ontario roughly mirrors that found across the country.

The report found that overall, the prevalence of household food insecurity in Canada’s ten provinces rose from 15.9 per cent in 2021 to 17.8 per cent in 2022, representing an increase of 312,000 households.

Last year, an estimated 2.7 million households, about 6.9 million Canadian residents including almost 1.8 million children, experienced some level of food insecurity.

This notable increase follows a three-year period of relative stability and is the highest-ever recorded level of food insecurity in Canada’s 17-year history of monitoring this data.

“This is absolutely the worst that we’ve ever seen,” said Li, who since 2017 has published annual reports with the PROOF team on household food insecurity in Canada. Their aim is to help better understand the reality families in this country are facing and to advocate all three levels of government to put programs and policies in place to address Canadian food insecurity.

“The main issue is that families don’t have enough money,” Li said, noting more government support along with better paying and more stable jobs are needed to ensure people don’t go hungry in this country.

Li said that one of the easiest ways to address food insecurity in Ontario, specifically, is to increase Ontario Works (OW), the province’s general social assistance program, which hasn’t been upped since 2018 and ensures those receiving it remain well below the poverty line.

The Ontario Disability Support Benefit (ODSB) must also be strengthened, he said, noting while it saw a 5 per cent increase to its core benefit amount in 2022 and an indexation to inflation, the amount recipients are getting is still not enough to prevent them from experiencing food insecurity.

As of July 2023, the maximum amount that a single person can get on ODSP is $1,308 a month. A single person on OW, meanwhile, is eligible to receive $733.

“The amounts are dismally low. … (Recipients) are already short for the most basics of basics. It’s pretty staggering,” Li said.

“These programs are supposed to be helping people get on their feet.”

According to the City of Toronto’s Nutritious Food Basket cost-monitoring tool, a single, unattached adult on OW in Toronto falls short by almost $1,400 a month, while a family of four receiving the same form of social assistance has a monthly deficit of roughly $3,200.

The city also determined that a family of four earning a minimum wage paycheque needs an extra $2,400 or so a month to meet basic needs, while a single adult minimum wage earner requires an extra $66 in monthly income sources.

Li also said that the amount of support provided to families with children through the Canadian and Ontario child benefits, especially for low-income households, must also be increased to mitigate food insecurity. Currently, the Ontario Child Benefit gives low-income to moderate-income families up to $1,607 per child annually, while the Canadian version provides about $3,200 per child each year.

FILE - In this Monday, Oct. 29, 2018, file photo, kids eat lunch at an elementary school in Paducah, Ky. Moisson Montreal is distributing snacks to children at day camps. (Ellen O'Nan/The Paducah Sun via AP, File)

Every day, Angie Peters, the CEO of Toronto’s Yonge Street Mission (YSM), sees families and individuals experiencing severe food insecurity as they struggle to make ends meet.

Peters said the data found in the U of T study is exactly what she and her team are seeing on the ground. With income not keeping up with inflation, coupled with the city’s extremely high cost of housing, many are turning to charitable organizations like YSM for food and other services to get by.

“We’re constantly seeing new people. People who have never ever gone to a food bank before,” she said.

“Our usage is up by 247 per cent since before the pandemic and the numbers aren’t coming down.”

Peters said that the demand for food at YSM is so great that they’ve had to expand their food bank to other rooms in the Gerrard Street facility that were once used for programming.

“The whole system is on overload. The gauge is on red,” she said.

“There’s no more time. It’s only going to get worse.”

Peters said if families had adequate government benefits and subsidies, they could pay their rent and childcare and not go hungry or without the most basic of needs.

The most significant way to curb food insecurity is through more social housing, she said, noting that YSM is actively participating in that conversation and has organized a working group comprised of city leaders to look at ways to increase the number of units being built each year, and in turn get a handle on Toronto’s 14-year-long affordable housing waiting list.

The creation of a national task force with representatives from all three levels of government as well as developers/builders, funders and charities will also go a long way to address this need, she said.

“We need a real plan for deeply affordable housing. … We need more collaboration to find solutions. There’s no other option,” Pieters said.

For now, however, she said YSM urgently needs food and cash donations so that the families they serve don’t go hungry.

“People are not eating. We need help. We’ve gotta get food into people’s hands,” she pleaded.

“That’s the reality and kids are hungry.”

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