51 per cent of food bank users in eastern Ontario miss a meal to pay bills: Report

Clients of food banks across eastern Ontario are being given a voice in a new report looking at who uses food banks across the region.

The survey was conducted in the fall of 2019 through Food Banks United, a group made up of several food banks across Stormont, Dundas, Glengarry and Grenville Counties, also including Rideau Community Health Services.

“They were very open. They wanted their story to be heard,” said Bonnie Pidgen Cougler from the South Grenville Food Bank.

"Having the survey is an opportunity to open our eyes on some things we didn’t even realize. It also has given us an opportunity to have a document that we can share with our MPs, our MPPs, our municipal government and people in our communities that change policy."

Questions on the survey touched on employment, food insecurity, transportation and housing, and direct quotes from clients can be found throughout the report.

The survey also highlights some surprising numbers about food bank use in the area.

"90 per cent are renting, 70 per cent of their income is going to rent and only 13 per cent of our respondents actually have subsidized housing,” said Joanne McIntyre from Rideau Community Health Services.

"When you’re paying out 70 per cent and that's just rent, that doesn’t include if they have to pay utilities on that, which a majority of rental units are having utilities on top of that, so there is nothing left for food. When we don’t have our basic needs and food is one of those basic needs, its hard to be able to function to do many other things in our lives so they rely heavily on us."

Another surprising stat was that 41 per cent of food bank users said they had gone a full day without a meal and 51 per cent said they missed a meal to pay for something else like rent or utilities.

Carolyn Stewart from Feed Ontario says the numbers are in line with provincial levels.

"They are very similar to provincial levels. Affordable housing is a key piece to us. The reason people ultimately visit food banks is due to a lack of income, a lack of income to be able to afford all of their basic necessities, and for housing to be considered affordable its supposed to be about 30 per cent of your monthly income."

Lisa Duprau from the Agape Centre in Cornwall says the COVID-19 pandemic has also brought in more people in to food banks.

"It kind of threw a wrench into things,” Duprau said.

"I still think the results we got were very accurate and a true picture of what people are dealing with. The pandemic has brought in a whole different clientele; we have people now that need support that were employed, either full time or part time and now need assistance with food.”

One person surveyed even said they had to take extreme measures to help feed their family.

"We did have someone disclose that they had to have prostitution to pay the bills and put food on the table,” said Pidgeon Cougler.

"I can’t imagine that being my mother, my daughter, my sister having to do that.”

Food banks united included three recommendations in the report, including:

  • Closing the gap between current social assistance rates and the actual cost of basic necessities
  • Utilizing the current definition of disability under the Ontario Disability Program, and 
  • Encourage all levels of government to make decisions through a poverty lens.

The group also met with several mayors and members of the Ontario and federal governments over a virtual meeting to discuss the results.

Cathy Ashby from House of Lazarus in Mountain, Ont. said there’s a lot of myths about food banks and people who use food banks.

“If people can read the report and see the statistics, they will see that these are people that they live beside. Twenty-two per cent are working. This coronavirus, for instance, will send more families to the food bank. It’s situational poverty,” Ashby said.

So also noted that food banks aren’t just for getting food.

"We have resources for housing for other needs that you may have at this time so just knock on the door or give us a call."

"I would just like to thank this group.” added Pidgeon Cougler.

"Working together, collaborating together has really been a game changer on helping everyone in our community have a brighter future.”

The full Voices Untied 2020 report can be found here.