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Maria Rio is the director of development at the Stop Community Food Centre, a non-profit in Toronto’s west end offering emergency food access services, community-building programs and urban agriculture.

Right now in Toronto too many families are forced to make the impossible choice between paying rent or buying food.

The 2021 Who’s Hungry report published by the Daily Bread Food Bank and North York Harvest found there were 1.45 million visits to Toronto food banks in 2020 – the highest number ever recorded. For the first time, new clients outnumbered existing clients, with a 61-per-cent increase compared with the year prior.

Toronto is facing a poverty crisis with increased inflation, low social-assistance rates and unaffordable housing. We are heading in the wrong direction, with one in four struggling to make ends meet and no relief in sight.

I know the effects of the affordability crisis first-hand. I have used emergency food services in Toronto in the past. I lived in a refugee shelter when I came to Canada and experienced the multifaceted effects of poverty for many years: living in a basement without air conditioning, struggling with how to afford food and transportation, calculating how much I could spend each day until my next paycheque.

I also know the significant role non-profits and emergency food access services play in keeping families afloat during challenging times. I’ve worked in non-profits for a decade and now work with the Stop. As more people run out of other “options” to pay their bills, such as going into credit card debt or using predatory payday loans, they turn to emergency services such as our drop-in meals and food-bank hampers. The continued economic crisis is resulting in an unprecedented, and still increasing, demand for the Stop’s emergency food access services.

In the past two years, we have seen a 40-per-cent increase in files at our food bank, each one representing a household of one to nine people. In just one year, between March, 2021, and March, 2022, we experienced a 30-per-cent increase in the number of individuals using our food bank.

We know that our work fulfills an immediate need. But to support a sustainable, long-term recovery from these crises, poverty must be treated with the same sense of urgency as COVID-19 – and with radical government intervention and accountability.

While there are many things that could be done, raising the staggeringly low social-assistance rates should be the single most important priority for the Ontario government; they are far below the cost of living.

At current rates, living a dignified and independent life is impossible for those whose only income is the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) or Ontario Works (OW). We surveyed our users and found that 67 per cent rely on social assistance. Of those, 52 per cent are on ODSP. A single recipient of ODSP will receive $1,169 to cover their basic needs this month, with only $497 allocated to housing costs.

I urge you to think about the last time you saw a rental for $497. On a similar note, a single adult on Ontario Works will only receive $733 this month to cover all their expenses. These are impossible amounts to survive on, much less thrive. Both ODSP and OW fall below the threshold for what Ontario’s Poverty Reduction Strategy deems to be deep poverty, meaning that these forms of social assistance – which are meant to provide critical income for individuals to cover their basic needs – are actually keeping people in poverty.

Using data from the Daily Bread Food Bank, a report by the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary shows the concrete implications of legislative decisions relating to social assistance rates and wages.

Researchers found that the use of essential services such as food banks demonstrates a direct correlation to increases in rent, and an inverse correlation to increased disability benefits and minimum wages.

Alarmingly, the researchers determined that “a $30 per month increase in rent would lead to 73,776 more visits to food banks annually in Toronto and 375,512 more visits across Ontario.” In other words, as basic costs such as rent and food increase, and as purchasing power decreases, we will continue to see more of our neighbours resorting to the critical supports that organizations such as the Stop provide.

The Stop can serve meals, provide food access, make referrals to local services and deliver skills training but ultimately, we cannot give our communities access to income that will allow them to buy their own groceries, pay for rent, keep up with inflation, save for retirement or support their families.

Through our services we can address the symptoms but not the root causes of some of the defining issues of our society, such as income inequality, homelessness and food insecurity. Legislation is uniquely capable of making such changes. Without government intervention the need for essential services will continue to increase – and I fear we and other non-profits will not be able to keep up.

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