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Hamilton residents increasingly use food banks for 'basic survival' as demand skyrockets across Ontario

A volunteer stocks shelves at BarakahBox food bank in 2022. It's an emergency food program supported by Hamilton Food Share.  (Submitted by Nagham Azzam - image credit)
A volunteer stocks shelves at BarakahBox food bank in 2022. It's an emergency food program supported by Hamilton Food Share. (Submitted by Nagham Azzam - image credit)

Food banks in Hamilton and across the province are seeing a surge in demand as residents deal with unaffordable housing prices, inflation and unstable employment.

Hamilton Food Share CEO Radhika Subramanyan said the organization has seen the largest single-year increase of households accessing food banks in the city — a 40 per cent jump between March 2022 and 2023. Hamilton Food Share distributes food and donations to 23 programs.

"Food bank use is indicative of a larger situation where people are in a very vulnerable place," said Subramanyan.

"They're using food banks and the money they're saving is for rent or utilities, not for extras. It's literally for basic survival."

This trend is in line with a new report from Feed Ontario, a collective of hunger relief organizations. Over 800,000 people accessed food banks across the province between April 1, 2022 and March 31, 2023, representing a 38 per cent increase from the year before.

It's also the seventh consecutive year food bank use has increased, said Feed Ontario CEO Carolyn Stewart.

"We've reached crisis levels in our food bank usage," she said. "It has been such a significant upswing that we've been seeing food banks across the province struggle to keep up with this demand."

People with jobs relying on food banks

The report says food bank use has continued to rise even though the unemployment rate returned to pre-pandemic levels in 2022. Increasingly more workers are relying on the emergency food source, with 37 per cent more in 2022-23 compared to the year before, and 82 per cent more compared to 2016-17.

This trend demonstrates "the old adage of go to school, get a job and you'll be OK unfortunately no longer applies on Ontario," Stewart said.

She noted people usually turn to food banks as a last resort, after using credit cards, pay day loans, borrowing money from friends or moving in with family.

"We're the last line of defence from homelessness," said Stewart.

A shipment of P.E.I. potatoes was unloaded at a food bank in Hamilton, Ontario.
A shipment of P.E.I. potatoes was unloaded at a food bank in Hamilton, Ontario.

A shipment of P.E.I. potatoes was unloaded at Food Share Hamilton last year. Food donations have dropped dramatically since the pandemic. (Food Banks Canada )

Hamilton Food Share's report from earlier this year captures why food bank users need the extra help:

  • 58 per cent of households spend more than 50 per cent of their income on rent

  • 55 per cent of users' primary income comes from disability supports or Ontario works

  • 43 per cent of households include children

Subramanyan called for changes to government policies to increase social assistance incomes so people receiving them don't have to live below the poverty line.

"We don't want hunger to be the new normal," she said. "We don't want to normalize that people need to use the food bank."

Donations down, costs up

Like its counterparts across Ontario, Hamilton Food Share is feeling the pressure of feeding an increasing number of people, while also seeing a steep decrease in community donations of about 75 per cent over the last four years, Food Share's Karen Randall told councillors at a meeting in September.

That means its purchasing more food to make up the gap, Randall said. At the same time, costs have increased across the board from transporting and storing food to operational and administrative expenses.

It's asking the city for help by providing $1.25 million annually so it can keep up with demand, said Randall.

If council doesn't approve this additional funding through its budget process, Hamilton Food Share and the food banks it supports will be forced to turn people away, she said.

Are you a food bank user in Hamilton? Email us to share your story: hamilton@cbc.ca