What a new food-bank reports tells us about deep poverty

Posted on October 20, 2022 in Social Security Policy Context

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TVO.org – article
Oct 19, 2022.   Kat Eschner

EXCLUSIVE: The Daily Bread Food Bank has analyzed more than a decade of data. Its findings reveal a shifting — and growing — pool of users

A new retrospective of data on food-bank usage in the Toronto area from 2010 to 2021 shows that the vast majority of those visiting food banks during each year of that period were in deep poverty, meaning they were at least 25 per cent below the income level that the federal government believes is possible to live on at a basic standard of comfort and safety.

Between 2013 and 2020, 93 per cent to 95 per cent of food-bank users were below the deep-poverty line. That number dropped to 81 per cent in 2021 as the result of a variety of factors, including a shifting (and growing) pool of food-bank users. Still, one thing remains unchanged: “The majority of food-bank users are not only in poverty — they are in deep poverty,” says Diane Dyson, vice-president of research and advocacy at Daily Bread Food Bank, the organization that released the report.

Daily Bread Food Bank, which helps to supply almost 200 food programs around Toronto, used data from past annual reviews to examine long-term trends. (Its most recent annual data, for 2022, won’t be released until November.)

Nearly all food-bank users, throughout all years studied, lived below the poverty line, which the most recent Stat Can numbers for Toronto place at $24,720 per year, or about $2,060 per month. Since 2018, this has been established by Statistics Canada using the Market Basket Measure, which looks at the cost of a “basket” of basic goods and services.

The income midpoint for food-bank users in 2021, according to Daily Bread, was $13,272, or $1,106 per month — an increase from all past years in the study, when the median income of food-bank users was less than $1,000 per month.

Daily Bread attributes this increase in the median income to its shifting client base, which Dyson says was the result of pandemic-related job loss and economic instability. The two groups that came to food banks more during 2021 were seniors and people whose main source of income was employment that had either dried up or wasn’t paying enough.

Social-assistance caseloads also went down in 2021, a shift that Daily Bread attributes to lower immigration and more people being able to access COVID-19 financial supports. They climbed once more in 2022, especially caseloads for Ontario Works, which has single adults as by far its largest demographic.

Those supports, and the reduction in the percentage of food-bank users in deep poverty last year, tell economist Armine Yalnizyan something important. “It shows that, when you want to, policy makes a difference,” she says. “It reduces deep poverty.”

Those supports, however, have nearly all ended now, leaving those on the margins to confront rising food inflation without them. “It will take a significant intervention to lift food-bank users out of the deep levels of poverty they face,” the report reads.

Most of Daily Bread’s food-bank users through the years and into 2021 use social assistance, meaning their primary income comes from Ontario Works or the Ontario Disability Support Program. The report also indicates that those with the lowest levels of household income were single adults — who have been identified as a group of particular concern by anti-poverty advocates — and ODSP recipients.

Food-bank users receive two to three days’ worth of food and a mix of perishable and non-perishable goods and are allowed to access the food bank once per week. “It cushions other expenses,” says Dyson, adding that food banks are neither intended nor able to replace a source of income that would allow someone to purchase sufficient food.

As TVO.org has reported previously, social-assistance recipients and their allies say current payments, which amount to as much as $1,228 per month for a single adult on ODSP and $733 per month for a single adult on OW, fall far below a livable amount of money. The Progressive Conservative government has committed to indexing future raises to inflation by passing new legislation, but no legislation to this effect has been introduced in the house since Doug Ford’s government returned to power.

Merrilee Fullerton, minister of children, community, and social services, declined to be interviewed for this story. Ministry spokesperson Patrick Bissett sent an email response that did not directly address TVO.org’s questions. “The government is lifting people out of poverty and providing meaningful opportunities, training, placements, and supports to help those who can work,” he wrote, pointing to past investments in the Social Services Relief Fund and several tax-credit programs.

Dyson is new to the food-bank sector, having joined Daily Bread in January. Before that, she says, she heard one food-bank organization’s description of social assistance as “legislated poverty” and felt skeptical. Now that she’s worked on this report, and on Daily Bread’s upcoming annual report, she says she understands its point: “None of the rest of us can fix this. It has to be a government policy decision.”

Food-bank use has accelerated over the past two years, with a whopping 47 per cent increase in 2021, which saw 1.45 million visits. And sky-high food inflation suggests it will keep going up. This signals that the problem of hunger could be spreading in Canada along with rising costs. But we don’t know much about what that will mean in this context: most recent research on the impacts of food inflation on public health looks at this issue in low-income countries.

“We haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about this, because we haven’t had to,” says economist Mike Moffatt, senior director of policy and innovation at the Smart Prosperity Institute. But one potential consequence of a hungrier province that comes to mind for him is poorer child educational outcomes. It’s well-understood in public health that hungry kids don’t learn well, he says: “It’s hard to see how it wouldn’t have an impact.”

Abebe Shimeles, director of research at the  African Economic Research Consortium, recently published a paper looking at the impact of food inflation on Ethiopian children in the three years after birth and while in the womb. His research has found that each percentage-point increase in food inflation before birth results in a child’s risk of stunting, or poor growth, by almost a full per cent. The precise impacts change depending on the age of the fetus or baby when food inflation occurs.

“There is a high degree of health impact on adults as well, especially people with fixed income,” Shimeles says. Ethiopia’s food inflation currently sits at more than 30 per cent, and he says that even many middle-class families are skipping meals or eating only once per day, things that Ontarians on ODSP and OW have said were commonplace for them even before prices started to rise.

Food inflation may seem like a passing issue, Shimeles says, but his recent research helps underline the fact it will likely have long-term consequences: “Food security is not simply a national-security strategy, but basically it’s a matter of survival for the future of a country.”

Yalnizyan says she lies awake at night thinking about the consequences of food inflation on those living on the margins and worries about the cascade of ill health that can begin with going hungry. “When more people go hungry, they will get sick,” she says. Sick people often head to the doctor — except many don’t have GPs, which means at least some will go to the hospital, where they can expect to be met by crowding and an overstretched system that could lead to bad health outcomes, especially if those people are already marginalized. “We are failing people every step of the way,” she says.

Policy-makers have a selection of choices before them to slow or halt that cascade, she says, but they boil down to this: either give people access to more money to buy food or help the charitable sector, like food banks, with more resources to bridge the gap. Right now, Yalnizyan adds, “the governments are doing none of the above.”

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.​​​​​​​  Kat Eschner is TVO.org’s Affordability Reporter.


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