Poverty numbers may be down, but food banks are busier than ever. CNS photo/Rick Musacchio

Housing costs put squeeze on food banks

  • November 17, 2019

A new study echoes what several others have found since the implementation of the Canada Child Benefit: poverty is declining in Canada with a significant drop in food insecurity among low-income families.

“Our study results are yet another piece of evidence that improving household incomes reduces food insecurity,” said Valerie Tarasuk, a scientist in the Joannah & Brian Lawson Centre for Child Nutrition at the University of Toronto and senior author of the study. “If you give poor families more money, they spend it on basic necessities like food — and the more desperate they are, the more likely they are to do this.”

But if that’s the case, it begs the question, why over the past year have visits to Toronto food banks risen by four per cent to more than one million visits? Those numbers were released by the Daily Bread Food Bank, North York Harvest Food Bank, the Mississauga Food Bank and the frontline agencies they work with in early November, the same time as the U of T research was published. The annual study documents the story of the thousands of people who rely on food banks.

“Food is enshrined in the International Declaration of Human Rights,” reads the report. “Yet despite having signed on to this international agreement, over four million Canadians are food insecure…. These staggering numbers tell us that the right to food is not being realized in our communities.” 

Jack Panozzo, manager of social justice and advocacy with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Toronto, agrees the Canada Child Benefit — the tax-free monthly payment to eligible families to help offset costs in raising children under age 18 — has helped raise some people out of poverty. But in the Toronto area, too many other factors lead to food insecurity, key among these the lack of affordable housing in a city that saw its housing market skyrocket over the past decade. That market, after briefly flattening, seems ready to take off again according to recent housing sales figures.

Right now, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the City of Toronto is just under $2,300. That’s before utilities are taken into account.

“Housing is a key factor in this whole business,” said Panozzo. 

Most food bank clients are private-market renters who have seen their incomes flatline, yet the percentage of income spent on housing has increased from 68 per cent last year to 74 per cent, according to this year’s study. That leaves little on the table for necessities like food and clothing.

“Rents are continuing to outpace income in Toronto and Mississauga, leaving our respondents only $7.83 per person per day to afford life’s other necessities,” the report said.

Panozzo sees some positive steps from the federal government in addressing the issue, namely its National Housing Strategy. This 10-year, $55 billion-plus plan introduced earlier this year aims to remove 530,000 families from housing need and cut homelessness by half by creating new housing supply, renovating existing affordable housing stock and other tools.

“When you create the ability for people to have housing you find that it changes their whole life,” he said. “When they have a safe, stable place to be, then (families are) able to build a life together.”

Housing alone won’t keep people from relying on food banks. The food bank report said strengthened social assistance, affordable child care, expanded tax benefits, equity policies and a commitment to ensuring affordable, nutritious and culturally appropriate food are needed to alleviate poverty.

“Food security, affordable housing and the ability to care for our children are three fundamental points upon which every government and every organization should be looking,” said Panozzo. Catholic Charities and its agencies are trying to respond to that, but “we really need government funding input there. … This is important and we have to do it. It’s not an option, it’s a necessity.”

Panozzo believes the current federal minority government may allow this to occur as the Liberals will need NDP support to stay in power. 

“If they can come together, and if politics doesn’t get in the way, then the country will be helped and we will move forward.”

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