Food banks a lifeline for single-parent families

Canada is widely regarded as one of the richest countries in the world.

But be that as it may, a record number of Canadians — close to 900,000 — are going to food banks in hopes of getting something to eat. Their hopes are not always realized. The need is so great that food banks are running out of food; and so the hungry, including a high proportion of children, stay hungry.

Imagine you’re a single mother or father with hungry children at home. You’ve lost your job because of the recession, and now you’re on social assistance. After you’ve paid the $700 per month market rent on your apartment, and other bills, you don’t have enough money left for food well before the end of the month. There’s nothing left to eat. Your children are crying. It’s one thing for you to feel hungry and bear with it, but you can’t stand to see and hear your children suffering. So you swallow your pride, look up the address of your local food bank and for the first time in your life go begging for food. At least that’s what it feels like. No matter how much you tell yourself you’ve done nothing wrong to deserve this, nothing to feel ashamed of — still, that’s the way you feel. It’s the way you were brought up, to work hard and look after yourself and your family, to not be a burden on society. But circumstances beyond your control, the shady intrigues of greedy money-jugglers, made victims of untold millions of honest, hard-working people like yourself.

So, with your children in hand, you try the food bank door; but it’s closed. There’s a sign that says, “Sorry, for the time being we are out of food, until further notice.” Your heart sinks. You have no idea what you’re going to do, how you’re going to feed your children. The tears come, thinking about it. You wipe them away quickly. You don’t want to alarm them. And you somehow have to hold yourself together, for their sake.

Think I’m getting more than a bit dramatic? Maybe. Maybe not. But from what I can tell from reading HUNGERCOUNT 2010, the annual report of Food Bank Canada, just such a tragic situation taking place, somewhere in Ontario especially, is well within the realm of possibility. But it could also have happened, and still be happening, time and time again in communities from coast to coast in Canada, and from the big cities in the south to the far-flung, scattered communities in the far north of this resource-rich country.

HUNGERCOUNT 2010 says 867,948 people “walked through the front door of a food bank in March 2010 asking for help.” That’s a 9.2% increase in a year, and a 21% increase since the recession hit in 2008. Of that new record number of people who needed food banks, more than 38% were children. And that doesn’t even begin to tell the story of many more thousands of people living in poverty who can’t afford to buy the variety and quality of food generally regarded nowadays as necessary to remain in good health.

I say “Ontario especially” because this province, once Canada’s richest, once the industrial engine of the Canadian economy, has the dubious distinction of being far-and-away the Canadian leader in food bank use. More than 400,000 Ontario residents used food banks in March of this year, 27,000 more than in the same period last year. The fact that the numbers were much lower in Quebec, 154,364, tells us something about how badly the recession and the continuing loss of many thousands of manufacturing jobs has affected Ontario, which now, officially, is considered a “have not” province. Food bank use in Ontario has always been a little higher compared with Quebec, but the gap between the two has never been this big.

Another disturbing picture emerges as one reads the report: many thousands of young people can’t find work, and/or are having a lot of trouble finding their way in a confusing world that doesn’t seem to offer them a lot of hope.

We should not forget that until fairly recently — certainly when baby boomers like me were young — Canada was a land of almost limitless opportunity. It had a frontier to explore and help develop, and there were plenty of factories where a fellow who maybe wasn’t cut out to go to university, or perhaps even graduate from high school, could always find work. But times have changed, that’s for sure. There’s not a lot “Made in Canada” anymore.

So, I wonder, maybe that helps explain why “single” people are the largest category by far of those using food banks, just over 50%. As well, half the people going to food banks are receiving social assistance.

In Ontario the “single” beneficiaries of Ontario Works social assistance numbered 145,052 as of August this year. The total number of adults and children on Ontario Works benefits was 459,033. Of those, 214,220 were single parents and their children. The most a single person on Ontario Works with no children can get monthly for basic needs and shelter is $585. Little wonder then that so many single people on welfare have to resort to food banks. And little wonder too that single young women on welfare sometimes see getting pregnant and having children as a way to increase their benefits. I fear we are witnessing the creation of a new sub-culture of dispirited young people on poverty-level social assistance who can’t afford to eat healthy, if they even know how, and feel little if any hope anything will change for them.

One of the main recommendations of the HUNGERCOUNT 2010 report calls for the development of a national poverty reduction and prevention strategy. With all the socio-economic changes taking place on the global, national and provincial levels, and the impact they’re having on young people especially, such an initiative seems vitally important, and urgent.

A young life is a terrible thing to waste, and a young mouth a terrible thing not to feed properly. Clearly, food banks are needed now. But they should be a thing of the past as soon as possible.

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2010.

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