Record-High Use of Food Banks in Ontario Amid Cost-of-Living Crisis

Volunteers sort food on Thanksgiving weekend at the Daily Bread Food Bank in Etobicoke. A new report finds Ontario food banks saw record-breaking usage over the last year. Jim Rankin / Toronto Star file The Star

A recent report has highlighted a concerning trend in Ontario, where the use of food banks has surged to record levels. Feed Ontario, a collective of hunger relief organizations, has released alarming statistics showing a 38% increase in food bank usage over the last year, marking the largest single-year increase in the province’s history.

Unprecedented Rise in Food Bank Usage

Between April 1, 2022, and March 31, 2023, over 800,000 individuals in Ontario sought emergency food support, with a total of more than 5.9 million visits to food banks. This represents a 36% increase from the previous year. Notably, first-time visitors accounted for two out of every five people using food banks, a 41% increase from the previous year.

Driving Factors Behind the Surge

Carolyn Stewart, CEO of Feed Ontario, emphasized the gravity of the situation in her statement: “It used to be that having a job meant that you would not need to access a food bank. This is no longer the case. Working Ontarians are having trouble earning enough income to afford today’s cost of living, even when working multiple jobs or trying to cut expenses.” The report identifies precarious work, the erosion of social support programs, and a lack of affordable housing as longstanding factors, further exacerbated by the skyrocketing cost of living.

Canned products sit on shelves at the Kanata Food Cupboard, Friday, Oct. 7, 2022 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Breaking Previous Records

Carolyn Bennett, CEO of Feed Ontario, posed a poignant question in her interview with the Star: “At what point are there going to be too many hungry people for change to happen?” The report reveals that the number of Ontarians using food banks last year was larger than the population of Mississauga. It further notes a significant increase in food bank visits since the pre-pandemic period, with nearly four times the number of people attending this year’s Canadian National Exhibition (CNE).

Demographics and Challenges

The report indicates a wide demographic range among food bank users, with 43% aged 18 to 44 years old and nearly a third under 17. The majority, 87%, cited the cost of living as the main reason for their visit. The report also sheds light on the growing number of working Canadians relying on food banks, with one in six visitors citing employment as their primary income source.

Capacity and Sustainability Concerns

With demand outpacing capacity, two-thirds of food banks are only able to provide services once per month. Bennett stressed the critical role of food banks as a last defense before homelessness and the need for comprehensive government support programs.