A set of shelves near the entrance to the village grocery store caught my eye this week as I stood in line at the check-out. It was filled on several levels with ready-packed bags of non-perishable food customers could purchase to donate to the local food bank.
That image alone said a lot about the need in and around the small Bruce Peninsula village, a need reflected elsewhere in the Grey-Bruce, Owen Sound area, throughout Ontario, and across Canada.
Coincidentally, just the day before I had heard one of the leading stories of that day, about the continuing high number of people in Ontario and across Canada who have to go to food banks because they can’t afford the cost of such a basic need as food.
Not to diminish the pain of hunger anyone on their own is suffering through, but that there are thousands of children in Canada who would be going hungry without vital access to a local food bank is surely a national disgrace.
And now we hear as well that the use of food banks by Ontario senior citizens has increased dramatically, by 35 percent, according to the “Hunger Report 2015” released this week by the Ontario Association of Food Banks (OAFB).
That report, and a similar one that looked at the continued high use of food banks across the country, make the same point: there is an urgent need for affordable housing for low-income families, single people and seniors.
The OAFB report said the average food bank “client” spends 70 percent of their income on rent, “leaving very little for all other necessities.”
It’s the same story across the country. “Every single person who comes to a food bank talks about the high cost of housing. Too many face the tough decision between paying rent and buying food,” said Katharine Schmidt, executive director of Food Banks Canada, at the recent release of its 2015 report.
Based on a national survey done last March it found 852,137 used food banks across the country that month. More than a third of them were children. A big factor in the overall 1.3 percent national increase in the use of food banks was a 23 percent increase in Alberta alone.
Food bank use in Canada greatly increased with the onset of the global economic recession in 2008. The number of people using food banks remains 14 percent, or 45,000 adults and children, above pre-2008 numbers, the Ontario association said in its Hunger Report. Nation-wide it remains 26 percent higher.
Sharon Lee, OAFB executive director, said the changing face of hunger in Ontario, with the unexpected increase in seniors and single people using food banks in Ontario is “very concerning.”
The Ontario report says 12 percent of seniors in Ontario now fall below the province’s “low income measure,” with the percentage jumping to 27 for single seniors. That trend is expected to continue as the Boomer generation ages and seniors become a larger proportion of the overall population. “Senior citizens are at a g rowing risk of food insecurity alongside far too many adults and children in our province,” Lee said.
The same worrisome trends are being seen at the food bank in Owen Sound. “Absolutely, we are seeing more (seniors) walking through our door,” the Salvation Army’s community and family services director Alice Wannan told me.
“And many of them have never been in a position before where they need to use the food bank,” she said. She spoke of concerns that there are still more seniors in the community who are in need but haven’t reached out for help because they’re not sure how to, or because the worry about the “stigma” attached to it.
“I absolutely believe there are some seniors going hungry,” Wannan said. With that in mind the food bank has been reaching out to seniors’ groups, meeting with them, making sure they’re aware where it is and how it works, and reassuring them about any concerns they may have.
Wannan also confirmed more access to affordable housing is “without question the number one need by far” underlying continuing high food bank usage in the Owen Sound area. Food bank usage in Owen Sound remains 40 percent higher than pre-recession levels. In 2014 5,700 adults and 1,881 children needed the food bank. This year the need remained constant, as people struggled to recover financially from a hard winter
The retirement home business is a growth industry. I mentioned rates generally start at $3,000 per month, and go up from there. I said $36,000 to $50,000 a year, depending on the accommodation, is a lot of money.
Wannan agreed. “We’re hearing from seniors already struggling today who are worried about how they’re ever going to afford housing . . . or how long they’ll have before their money runs out,”
Katharine Schmidt of Food Banks Canada saw reason for hope that something will be done on a national level about the pressing need for more affordable housing. She referred to a plan Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has “that closely mirrors the recommendations we have made in successive reports.
“This gives us hope and a belief that there will be action at the federal level (to) significantly reduce the need for food banks in Canada.”
The new government certainly has a lot on its plate: infrastructure upgrading, action on climate change, new ships for the country with the longest shoreline in the world, a plan to bring 25,000 refugees to this country, and now renewed calls for a national affordable housing policy. On and on it goes, much of it about making up for lost time, and things left undone.
It’s all needs doing, in the spirit of investing in the country’s future, and the world’s, for that matter.
Originally published in The Sun Times in 2015