Governments need to step in to help the tens of thousands of people who've been forced to use Toronto-area food banks for the first time due to soaring housing costs, rising inflation and stagnant incomes, food policy experts and advocates warn.
The Daily Bread Food Bank says it saw 171,631 visits in Toronto in June alone — a record-high number that it says is only expected to keep growing, with nearly 8,000 new clients last month.
"We've never serviced this many people in a single month, and it's part of a trend that we're watching rise month-over-month," said Diane Dyson, the organization's interim vice-president of research and advocacy.
The monthly average number of users before the pandemic was about 60,000, Daily Bread estimates. Experts say many people who are new to food banks are caught in a cycle of rising prices, with Canada's inflation rate spiking at its fastest pace in almost 40 years, hitting 7.7 per cent in May, according to Statistics Canada. Food prices are also a major factor, increasing by 9.7 per cent over the past year. Meanwhile, people's wages aren't keeping up.
"While we have also seen a record number of donations, we are purchasing more food than ever before," Dyson told CBC Toronto.
Before COVID-19, Dyson said the charity would buy about $1.5-million worth of food in one year. Now it's spending approximately $13 million yearly.
Many using food banks for the first time have one or more jobs, she added.
Dyson said at the beginning of the pandemic, Daily Bread received some money from the federal government. But with no funding currently available to food banks, it is relying solely on donations from individuals and private organizations.
Policy solutions needed, not more food banks
She said it's important to look at long-term solutions.
"Food banks will never be able to meet the entire need of hunger and food insecurity in our city," Dyson said.
"We have to make sure that living wages are living wages, that housing is affordable, that social assistance supports a good life."
Mustafa Koc, a sociology professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and the director of the Centre for Studies in Food Security, agrees.
"My fear is that if we will be hit by what we call stagflation — both economic slowdown while inflation continues," Koc said.
"Then we will have far worse problems. And that's why we need policy solutions as food banks themselves suggest. Not more food banking."
Koc said he hopes the Canadian Food Policy Advisory Council, which was created by the federal government last year to help tackle food challenges, will push for policy solutions at a federal level.
"Federal and provincial collaboration will likely result in effective policy solutions. But this is not just a Canadian problem. This is a global problem and we may also need to think about global solutions," he said.
'Ringing alarm bells'
Valerie Tarasuk, a professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto, says while there may be more people turning to food bank as prices rise and incomes remain generally stagnant, low-income groups are the ones most harshly affected.
"While food banks are the public face of food insecurity or hunger ... those numbers represent a very small fraction of the people who are struggling to put food on the table because of a lack of money," Tarasuk said.
"The inflationary pressures that we're seeing in Canada right now can only be making the situation more dire for those people."
Tarasuk said income support programs such as Ontario Works are not providing adequate support to cover basic living costs. She added that working-age adults and families who are in the workforce also don't have incomes that are keeping pace with the rising cost of living.
"These reports on food price inflation should be ringing alarm bells for people at the federal and provincial level," she said.
"The solution to this problem is to take a look at the income sources of the people who are most vulnerable and make sure that at minimum they are indexed to inflation, which in Ontario they're not right now," Tarasuk added.
"[And] also to look for policy levers like the Canada child benefit, to say 'how can we put more money into the pockets of very low income families?'"