The good news is that visits to food banks in the GTA have subsided, a new report by the Daily Bread Food Bank says. The bad news is that the visits still remain 14 per cent higher than pre-recession levels.
While the overall number of visits dropped by 9 per cent, GTA food banks had 1.2 million visits in the fiscal year 2011, a sign of "how desperate things had become for an unacceptably high number of people," the report released on Wednesday said.
The situation is alarming, said Gail Nyberg, executive director for the Daily Bread Food Bank. Since the recession, Ontario food banks have seen an 8-per-cent increase in 2009, followed by a 15-per-cent jump in 2010 – the largest single increase in visits they have seen in decades.
"On paper, it looks good that we have a 9-per-cent drop," she said. "But it's not that surprising the numbers have gone down since that high point during the recession.
"With the uncertain economy, it's nerve-racking that we have so many visits still," she added.
Ms. Nyberg also said that demands in the suburbs are growing. At 84 per cent, Toronto still has the majority of all visits in the GTA, but the number of visits to food banks in the 905 area jumped 13 per cent from 2008 to 2011.
"In the GTA, the outer areas are starting to look more like Toronto," she said.
With a booming population in Mississauga, Shelley White, co-chair of the Mississauga Summit, says it's not surprising that demand is growing fast in Peel region.
"It's a huge problem and we are probably underestimating the demand," said Ms. White, who is also the president and CEO of United Way Peel Region. "The population is growing so fast … and we have so many newcomers who need to access social services, such as food banks, that may not be as easily accessible as in Toronto."
The Daily Bread report also found that job losses and an inability to find work are driving more people with higher education to the food banks, with the percentage of food bank users with a university or postgraduate degree rising to 28 per cent in 2011 from 21 per cent in 2006. Of those, 63 per cent were newcomers to Canada.
It's not easy keeping a job as a newcomer, even if qualified, said Ratna Omidvar, president of the diversity advocacy group Maytree. "If you are the last hire, then you are the first to get fired. Many of these parents are working multiple jobs to make ends meet, and sometimes money runs out and you are forced to look at alternatives."
The report also found that 25 per cent of food bank users had someone in their household who was working for an average of 20 hours a week.
A part-time job, even paying above minimum wage, is not a sustainable option and, as a result, the working poor are also accessing food banks, Ms. Nyberg said.
Coupled with waiting times of five to 15 years to access subsidized government housing, the rising cost of housing in the GTA is also a major contributing factor for hunger and poverty. The report states that after paying for housing, the average food bank client is left with only $5.67 (including tax benefits) to spend on food, transportation and other living expenses per day.
"It comes down to people being forced to choose between paying their rent and eating food," Ms. White said.
The hunger report noted that food-bank access is not only affected by the state of the economy, but also by social policy. As such, Ms. Nyberg said the Daily Bread encourages the provincial review of Ontario's social assistance programs, which is due to be released in June, 2012. It is the government's first major review of its social assistance programs in 20 years.