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Neil Hetherington, CEO of the Daily Bread Food Bank, is photographed on April 18, 2023.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Food banks across Ontario are in crisis mode, as demand reaches record highs amid the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and persistently high inflation.

In Toronto, where the high cost of living continues to cause the most glaring need, the Daily Bread Food Bank fed more people in March than in any month in the organization’s 40-year history.

“It is so beyond the pale in terms of what we are dealing with right now,” said Daily Bread chief executive officer Neil Hetherington. “This is way worse than during the pandemic.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr. Hetherington said the food bank had roughly 60,000 client visits a month. That doubled a year into the pandemic, and this past March reached 270,000.

“So we got to that level, beyond a quarter million, and we said, enough is enough – this is not sustainable,” he said. “We used to send out 30,000 pounds a day to the city. We’re now sending 160,000 pounds.”

Before the pandemic, he said, Daily Bread spent $1.5-million a year on food. Now, they’re spending $1.8-million a month.

Food banks across the province are facing the same problems. Demand skyrocketed when COVID-19 and public-health restrictions shocked the economy, and high inflation has only exacerbated the problem. Even as Canada’s general inflation rate finally cools this spring, food prices have continued to climb.

These same factors driving increased demand on food banks are also causing donations to drop, leaving many organizations in a scramble.

Food banks, which don’t routinely receive government support, say the solution is for governments to increase supports that prevent people from needing to turn to the food bank in the first place.

Feed Ontario last fall released its 2022 Hunger Report, which recorded 4.3 million visits by close to 600,000 unique people in the province last year. Those numbers have only continued to spike throughout the first quarter of 2023, said the group’s executive director, Carolyn Stewart-Stockwell, with visits increasing by an average of 35 per cent this past February, compared with the same month last year. In certain urban centres, such as the Greater Toronto Area, she said that increase was as high as 59 per cent.

“We do have a concern at the provincial level that at some point, the capacity of the emergency food network is going to be outpaced by demand,” Ms. Stewart-Stockwell said.

The demographics of food bank users have also shifted, with more working people having to rely on such services. In Toronto, Mr. Hetherington said a third of people coming to food banks in 2022 worked full time, up from about 16 per cent the year before.

A person working full-time hours at minimum wage in Ontario – currently $15.50 an hour, and set to rise to $16.55 an hour in October – would make about $2,700 a month, or $32,00 a year, before taxes.

Feed Ontario cites precarious work as one of the main contributing factors to the rising need, alongside rising food costs, a housing affordability crisis, and stagnant social assistance rates.

“At its core, food insecurity, or the reason people use food banks, is an income issue – insufficient income to be able to afford your most basic necessities,” Ms. Stewart-Stockwell said, noting that 60 per cent of food bank users are on some kind of social assistance.

Under the current assistance system, single working-age adults receive $733 a month through Ontario Works, the province’s main income assistance program, or $1,228 a month through the Ontario Disability Support Program.

Ms. Stewart-Stockwell said food banks aren’t asking for government funding because, she said, “we don’t want to institutionalize food banks as a solution.” Instead, these organizations are calling on governments to offer more help for people struggling to make ends meet.

Kristen Tedesco, a spokesperson for the province’s Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, sent a statement that noted a recent 5-per-cent increase to the disability support rates as “the largest increase in decades.” The statement said there are other income-tested benefits available, such as the Ontario Trillium Benefit, which helps with energy costs and taxes.

But the recent increase to disability support rates was the lowest pledged by any party during last year’s provincial election – and, critics say, leaves rates well below the poverty line, particularly amid a housing crisis that has dramatically pushed up the costs of rent in places in Toronto and elsewhere.

“The poverty line in Toronto is $2,100. So we legislate that if you are disabled in Ontario, you must be in poverty,” Mr. Hetherington said.

Until inflation rates stabilize, Mr. Hetherington is calling on the provincial government to revive social assistance top-ups that were provided during the pandemic – because the need, now, is worse, he said.

“We need that back,” he said. “That’s it.”

Outside the Toronto region, food bank operators in communities such as Peterborough, Niagara Falls, Thunder Bay and Belleville are also reporting unprecedented pressure to meet rising needs in their communities, where poverty has never been more visible.

In Niagara Falls, the city’s largest food bank served more than 9,300 people last year – which works out to one in 10 city residents.

Just in the past month, roughly 14,000 people visited Peterborough-area food banks, according to Kawartha Food Share general manager Ashlee Aitken. Before the pandemic, she said that number would have been around 9,000.

“So that’s a very startling number,” Ms. Aitken said, especially in a region with a population smaller than 150,000.

In Belleville, Susanne Quinlan, director of operations at the Gleaners Food Bank, said they served more than 13,000 adults and more than 5,000 children at their Belleville location alone last year – up 50 per cent from the year before. As demand continues to rise, she said, they have had to start culling their food hampers of any “extras,” such as instant coffee or tea.

“We used to be the Band-Aid, but now we’re the mainstay,” Ms. Quinlan said. “We used to call them ‘emergency food hampers’ now they’re just monthly food hampers. There’s no emergency – it’s life.”

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