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Neil Hetherington, CEO of The Daily Bread Food Bank, works in the warehouse in Toronto on March 18, 2020.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

The number of new clients using Toronto’s food banks has tripled during the pandemic, according to a report that shows worsening food insecurity and hunger in the city.

The report, released today by Daily Bread Food Bank, reveals an estimated 6,100 new clients began using the organization’s member food banks in June, compared with roughly 2,000 new clients in February. About 20,000 people now use food banks each week, up from 15,000 in 2019.

The report found an increasing number of people in the city do not have enough to eat because they do not have enough money for food, and that child hunger is on the rise. The findings echo a Statistics Canada report released last month, which found one in seven Canadians reported experiencing food insecurity during the pandemic in May. That meant they lacked access to adequate food, including not being able to afford balanced meals and, at the most extreme, going hungry. Canadians living in households with children were most affected, with 19 per cent reporting food insecurity.

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Neil Hetherington, chief executive officer of Daily Bread Food Bank, anticipated the situation may become more dire in the next two to four months.

Prior to the pandemic, many in Toronto were living paycheque to paycheque, and were close to being unable to pay their rent, Mr. Hetherington said. Now, owing to lost jobs and reduced working hours during the COVID-19 crisis, “we have this tsunami of evictions that is just months away.”

Moreover, he added: “We believe that the road to recovery for people who are making use of food banks is going to be a multiyear recovery.”

The report is based on food bank data and the results of a phone survey of more than 220 food bank clients, conducted in May and June.

Of the new clients surveyed, 76 per cent said they began using food banks primarily because of job losses or a reduction in working hours arising from the pandemic. About 28 per cent of all respondents said they were receiving the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), but still needed to use food banks owing to the high cost of living in Toronto.

One third of all respondents reported feeling severe stress or anxiety on a near daily basis about having enough food, and 19 per cent said they did not have enough to eat, up from 8 per cent before March. Nearly a quarter said they went a full day without food. Meanwhile, the number of respondents who said their children were hungry a couple days a week rose to 8 per cent from 4 per cent.

Since children are not attending school, they do not have access to food through breakfast and lunch programs in the same way, Mr. Hetherington said, noting many new clients are parents with young children.

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The report provided a series of recommendations for the federal and provincial governments, which revolve around making sure people have enough money to buy food, providing affordable housing and boosting health benefits. These include ensuring that recipients of CERB continue to have income supports once pandemic emergency benefits end, committing to reviewing and reforming the Employment Insurance (EI) system to support those in non-traditional jobs, and committing to raising the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) to meet the Market Basket Measure, representing the cost of a basic standard of living.

“There’s a saying that food insecurity is not a food issue, it’s an income issue,” Mr. Hetherington said. “The cost of living in the city is just so dramatic that it takes quite an income to be able to get by.”

Lynn McIntyre, a professor emerita of community health sciences at the University of Calgary who was not involved with the report, said the number of people who use food banks represents only a fraction of those who actually experience food insecurity.

While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced an investment of $100-million in April to support food banks and food programs, Dr. McIntyre said that money could have been used for piloting basic income programs, which are key to solving food insecurity.

“We really do need to rationalize this,” she said.

Kim Whyte, who relies on ODSP, said the monthly $1,298 she receives is not nearly enough to keep her nourished. She lives about an hour’s drive east of Toronto, and has multiple medical conditions.

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After paying the rent, she has only $398 left, some of which she uses to pay someone to buy her groceries once a month. These days, the amount she has left for food is even smaller after purchasing items such as face masks and cleaning supplies.

Nearing the end of July, the food in her fridge and pantry was mainly condiments, with the exception of instant ramen noodles, one can of beans and a tin of Spam given to her by a neighbour.

She does not use a food bank because many foods make her ill.

“If I could have only done better [in life], not been sick,” she said. “But I still believe people who just cannot work should be helped. It’s not about a free ride. It’s survival.”

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