Feed Ontario is reporting a sharp rise in food bank clients since the pandemic hit. Michael Swan

Food bank use skyrockets during pandemic

  • December 2, 2020

The stock market is up, real estate is soaring and yet food bank use is through the roof.

Feed Ontario, the organization that represents Ontario food banks, has released its annual report showing that foot traffic at food banks was already increasing before COVID hit hard in March. Since then things have gotten worse:

  • Between April 1, 2019 and March 31, 2020 Ontario food banks have handed out boxes or bags of groceries 3.3 million times, keeping 537,575 people fed — an increase of 5.3 per cent over the year previous and a 7.8-per-cent jump over two years;
  • Preliminary numbers show a 10-per-cent increase in food bank use between September 2019 and September 2020;
  • 81 per cent of food banks have started new, emergency support programs in response to COVID;
  • Over 93 per cent of food bank users surveyed reported being in debt with credit cards, payday loans, friends and family as they try to cope with pandemic-era income losses.

These numbers don’t come as a surprise to people working on the poverty frontline.

“We open up at 6 p.m. tonight,” Our Lady of Lourdes food bank manager Lynne MacIntosh told The Catholic Register. “People are already there, 4:10 p.m. — people are lining up already. That’s how bad it is. People are in dire need to line up almost two hours in advance.”

At the Knight’s Table, a Knights of Columbus-supported food bank in Brampton, Ont., administrator of programs Joanne Hopkinson is signing up 20 new clients a day

“Normally, we don’t do that. Normally we will get that many in a week,” Hopkinson said.

As scary as the numbers may be, the longer term implications of masses of debt piling up among low-income people scares Hopkinson more.

“People are falling behind on their rent. They’re falling behind on their bills,” she said. “If you’re not working, how do you catch up?”

Forty-eight per cent of the food bank users Feed Ontario surveyed said they were worried about eviction or defaulting on their mortgage. Another 28 per cent said they would be unable to continue paying utilities within the next two to six months.

“It will make it even more difficult for individuals to get back on their feet when COVID-19 is over,” said the report.

The emotional and family cost of all that financial stress is showing up at Catholic Family Services organizations.

“We absolutely, and I think not surprisingly, are seeing people with increased stress, and some of that is financial,” said Catholic Family Services of Durham executive director Elizabeth Pierce. “We tend to see people who are in the lower income, precarious income, no income bracket anyways… We’re just seeing an exacerbation of that.”

“It’s absolutely fair to say that a huge number of our clients are coming in with financial stress,” said Catholic Family Services of Toronto executive director Brenda Spitzer. 

Catholic Family Services aren’t debt counsellors and don’t collect numbers on the sources of stress in families they see, but counsellors say they are talking to people at the end of their rope financially.

“In the best of times we would have financial stress, those kinds of aspects of life, showing up in the case load,” Spitzer said. 

Though couples typically have multiple sources of stress when they come to CFS, Spitzer believes financial stress is driving record numbers trying to access the agency’s services.

“I would be shocked if it isn’t that,” she said.

Pierce is also convinced that the repercussions will be long term.

“It feels like a very logical conclusion that people who are already unable to financially support themselves, that if this continues indefinitely and they’re borrowing consistently, yeah they’re going to get themselves into such a hole that they can’t get out,” she said.

Other agencies in the region are also seeing the knock-on effects of COVID income loss, said Pierce — including women’s shelters.

“They’re not just getting calls from women fleeing violent relationships. They’re getting a lot of calls around homelessness, because the impact of this is people unable to afford to live in their home.”

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