Pastel-coloured eggs in baskets brought by bunnies; emerald palm fronds in the hands of the faithful; and the fragrant blooms of white lilies — these trumpet Easter; but so do food bank appeals for the hungry. It has been this way for years, but I barely noticed. I just gave what I could and looked away; but this year something changed.
Stuck on a platform, having just missed a train, I watched the subway television screen to learn what else was going on in the world. A message scrolled by on the screen, explaining that local food banks were conducting a citywide food drive. Right then a bell went off. Why, I wondered, do food bank drives and the brown paper bag handouts come up at Easter? Why at all?
Food banks are horrible. They make me look closely at everyone who passes by me (whether they are in clean clothes or not, and whether they crouch in corners with empty coffee cups or not) because how can you tell who goes to the food bank? Anyone may experience food insecurity, even people who look like they have it all together. In fact, however horrible food banks seem, for those with empty bellies and without means to fill the fridge and cupboard, food banks are a godsend.
Food banks fill a need. I hate to admit it. Last year, for example, food banks filled a need for more people like my friend, who once admitted that even though she had a job, once separated from her husband, she was secretly struggling to survive in a suburb east of Toronto. It should not be the case. Educated people who work full-time should not need food banks, ever, nor should any other person in a society boasting a social safety net. Food banks should disappear — Poof! — be gone.
The Daily Bread food bank representatives want that too, but in the meantime, say food banks must operate because despite a seven per cent decline in usage last year, more people used food banks in the GTA last year than since the 2008 economic downturn. The organization’s numbers for April 2013 to March 2014 indicated it was the sixth consecutive year that the region’s food bank network was called on over one million times.
Who are these people?
Based on a survey of food bank clients, conducted by Toronto’s Daily Bread food bank and shown in the chart below, nearly half of them have a disability; slightly less are single adults (aged 45 and over); some have a college diploma (bachelor’s degree or higher); and unfortunately, a number of them are children. And they are using food banks for longer stretches. Last year those who relied on food banks did so on average 18 months. That’s six months longer than the average in 2010. The suburbs, which are thought of as safe zones for families, are actually hiding hungry people, primarily women who are struggling to make ends meet. And where you have women struggling, like my friend’s family, often times, you will find children. Meanwhile, in the city proper, many single adults are struggling to eat. “Singles now represent the largest proportion of social assistance cases, surpassing single parents,” the report states, calling for policy changes (tax benefits etc.) similar to those that improved the lot of single parents.
Why are they going hungry?
There are statistics on that too. The food bank’s report on hunger: Who’s Hungry Report (2014), says that low income and high housing costs are to blame. Based on the 1000 food bank clients surveyed, the average food bank client has to live on $750 per month. This amount is used to cover rent, while food banks cover the other basic human need because in the GTA $750 does not cover both. Meanwhile, for those on disability who use the social safety net, the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) isn’t enough to counter the rising cost of living (housing and food costs). Ditto for the other well-known provincial social assistance program, Ontario Works, which is intended to provide income and employment assistance for those proven in need.
ODSP support payments grew five per cent between the years 2010 and 2014, but did not keep up with inflation. Between 2010 and 2014 Statistics Canada data indicates the cost for a typical basket of goods grew eight per cent. Each month, Ontario Works pays monthly to a single person with no children: $656 for food and shelter, while ODSP pays out $1,098; A single person with a child would get $941, while ODSP would offer $1,525. It means a $7 billion yearly social assistance bill for the province, according to a 19 March Toronto Star article by Richard Brennan, but at the same time the challenge is that people are still going hungry even with this effort because average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the GTA is $1,032, and $873 for a studio, according to Canada Mortgage and Housing data, which not only shows how rental accommodation eats quickly into the income of those who rely on these programs, but that affordable housing is necessary to help people live independently.
Among those using GTA food banks, losing a job is the most frequent reason (33%) cited for food bank reliance. This job loss can happen due to a poor economy or personal failing, but also because of the unexpected, such as serious health problems which can lead to loss of income and a decline into poverty. Furthermore, the self-employed, part-time, seasonal or casual worker being unlikely to have private insurance, may have difficulty qualifying for federal Employment Insurance (EI) if they cannot work. The second highest reason for using a food bank is disability, cited by 23 per cent of respondents. And those with disability use food banks for a longer period — on average 24 months, compared to those recently laid off and on EI, who typically leave off food banks after seven months. Among those groups mentioned here, some need food banks due to interruptions or delays in accessing appropriate government-run programs. However, re-loadable debit cards and a new tool to manage social assistance payments called, Social Assistance Management System (SAMS) is expected to reduce not just the stigma of cashing a “welfare cheque,” but also to improve the timeliness of payments.
Three other causes were noted in the Who’s Hungry report: the increasing employer preference for part-time and contract work, which means less job and income security for employees; ‘barriers to employment’ for the disabled, which prevents them leaving social assistance programs; and third, substandard social assistance programs.
How to end food bank usage?
“Providing people food, on its own, will not solve hunger in the long term,” Richard Matern, manager of research at the Daily Bread Food Bank wrote in the food bank’s report. Fortunately, twenty-five years ago a group of people got together to determine how to end the “chronic” need for food banks, namely by addressing the circumstances that lead individuals and families in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) to seek food banks. Their report was called, “Not by Bread Alone: A Strategy to Eliminate the Need for Food Banks in the GTA.”
They found “no one cause for food bank use,” and “no one type of person who uses food banks.” And although you might believe it to be outdated, it is not. Surprisingly it aligns closely with the more recent Who’s Hungry report, and years ago found that inadequate incomes and social supports, and lack of affordable housing are the roots of hunger. Those earlier researchers then sought to fix the root causes, so that those who would prefer not to use food banks, could afford to.
“The elimination of hunger in Ontario cannot be and must not be seen to be a government responsibility alone,” they said, calling upon faith communities, the voluntary and charitable sector, and the private sector to step up and play a part. At the same time, they found that recommendations for solving hunger were already forwarded in various government reports.
The Not by Bread Alone report provides 49 recommendations in total, with those that should be implemented first topping the list. So early on it says inadequate income is “one of the greatest reasons why people use food banks in the GTA (the other being the high cost of housing).” Later on you will have to swallow a guffaw and all disbelief, just as you would at the movies, because instituting the solutions, regardless of how fundamental, seems far-fetched.
Then again, perhaps it does not sound at all implausible to you that we should tackle social assistance benefits, private sector wages, and have practices that show commitment to human resources development and respect for cost of living. The report says that jobs should provide greater economic security. Either companies themselves voluntarily make this improvement, or unions are expected to push for it. Meanwhile, minimum wage legislation is supposed to ensure wages cover living costs and prevent people suffering the indignity felt by many who rely on food banks. We have seen the minimum wage increase in Ontario, but it is not yet in line with a “liveable” wage.
Several suggestions in Not by Bread Alone would improve the availability of childcare because those who do not have access to flexible childcare solutions may not be able to participate fully in the workforce. With this in mind, Ontario’s institution of full day kindergarten looked rosier. Initially, my approval of the program hinged on it providing greater learning outcomes later on for children; but now it is clear that food, education, and safety for these children allow their parents to participate in the workforce, and to do so with greater piece of mind.
Another recommendation deals with housing, specifically affordable housing, which the report calls for, but says the private sector will not build. Affordable rental housing they say provides “insufficient profit” when compared to condominiums and office buildings. Pair that with a lack of affordable land, and you may have no new affordable housing. However, to enable affordable housing development, Not by Bread Alone suggests that all levels of government, and faith groups should agree to lease land at mortgage rates one per cent below prime, or less. The government can re-purpose or re-develop single story buildings under its jurisdiction as mixed use — residential and commercial. For example, where you have standalone liquor stores, the building could be re-developed to have the store below and affordable apartments above it.
“Fiscally efficient,” mixed-income affordable housing is also recommended because it would “reduce the amount of subsidy dollars paid to landlords.” So, basically Not by Bread Alone says, spend the money on the needy in a way that allows the best return — more people living independent of direct, ongoing financial assistance, rather than enriching landlords, and thereby, help people to help themselves.
Notably, organizations such as Options for Homes, and Habitat for Humanity both champion and build housing in the GTA, for reasons other than for profit. What might also be necessary is for builders to provide smaller homes, which should be more affordable, and so I asked my member of city council if there were any initiatives on that score, or to investigate a proposal by Habitat for Humanity to exempt builders of affordable housing from certain development charges. The Habitat proposal was submitted in January 2014 to the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, so rightly, it is a provincial government topic, but if she investigates, that alone could reveal other opportunities for action. Toronto, which already offsets some development charges, could like the city of Hamilton, update its bylaws to allow City council to decide on exemptions. If this were done to create a certain set yearly amount of affordable housing, perhaps progress could be made on the issue. Unfortunately, she has not responded, yet.
Both outside and inside government, education around poverty issues and social inequality could reduce stigmatization of those who need social supports, and change the conversation from one about charity to one about justice. Perhaps, too, it will one day spark enough ideas to eliminate poverty all together, so that there will be an end to food banks; but that might be extremely idealistic.
Not by Bread Alone is available at the Toronto Public Library if you’re interested in a full read through. Otherwise, here is a condensed version of its additional suggestions, put loosely into the categories: income, social policy, and education. You may note that action was taken on some issues, but with food bank usage consistently high, maybe it is time to look again at what was stated 25 years ago:
- Social assistance rates and benefits: – improve the administration of social assistance programs to avoid disruption and service delays, which lead people to need food banks.
- Minimum wage increase: – the minimum wage should be set at a liveable wage.
- Job creation for GTA: – train social assistance recipients to enter the workforce and develop skills for self-sufficiency.
- Special leaves: – parental, family responsibility leaves should be implemented and incorporated in union agreements.
- Tax reform: – a tax system based on one’s ability to pay is more fair. And use the tax system to promote desirable corporate behaviour. For example, businesses with child care facilities should reap tax benefits.
- Housing: – Build new affordable housing along main streets. Zone to allow increased supply of affordable, “legally permitted” housing. Re-purpose surplus public land for affordable (non-profit) housing before all else. Create and support non-profit housing programs. Institute lease agreements of 3 years and with rent based on income. Rent regulations should provide tenants economic insulation.
- Develop strategies to reduce social inequities and increase education on these issues.
- Faith communities should switch from encouraging charity to encouraging behavioural, policy and societal change.
- Create a child care facilities fund for the GTA along with increasing locations where childcare can be provided — workplace, private homes, schools, community centres, etc. to enable workforce participation.
- Educate the public about obstacles to affordable housing and reduce the NIMBY syndrome that would prevent affordable housing builds.
- Regarding social assistance reform, the goal is to have people understand the “pay now or pay later reality of social programmes.” Also, dispel the myths around poverty issues.
- Provide nutrition education for children and parents.