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A Brock University professor finds that more Niagara residents are using food banks than ever before.

ByKevin WernerNiagarathisweekcom

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

More Niagara residents are being forced to use food banks than ever before, according to a report by Brock University political scientist Joanne Heritz.

From 2021 to 2023, all 10 food banks in the region saw an increase in the number of visits, particularly Indigenous, diverse, seniors, children and even those individuals with a full-time job, according to the report.

Community Care of St. Catharines and Thorold experienced almost a doubling of the number of visits, from 57,679 in 2021 to 104,000 in 2023, and Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Newark Neighbours had the highest percentage increase in the number of visits, to 140 people from 64 people, or 118 per cent in 2023.

“I had an idea it was rising,” Heritz said of when she began her report. “It was a surprise when I saw how large the increases were. It is unprecedented.”

Welland’s The Hope Centre saw 3,286 people use food banks in 2021, while in 2023 that number jumped to 4,865, a 48 per cent increase. And at West Lincoln Community Care, 3,770 people used the food bank in 2021, while in 2023 the number soared to 4,582 people.

“It is indicative of the need in Niagara-on-the-Lake,” Newark Neighbours chair Cindy Grant said earlier this year when asked about the higher number of people accessing the food bank.

The Niagara region isn’t the only area that is experiencing a dramatic increase in food bank usage. In 2021, one in six Canadian households were food insecure, amounting to about 5.8 million people, including nearly 1.4 million children. By 2022 the number of households had expanded to 6.9 million, including 1.8 million children.

Heritz said food insecurity continues to disproportionately impact Indigenous peoples, diverse communities, children and students.

“There is no indication that the number of residents accessing food banks will diminish in the short term, and the trajectories indicate that numbers may continue to rise,” said Heritz.

The policy brief, called Sustaining Food Security in Niagara, published in Brock University’s Niagara Community Observatory’s April 2024 edition, said the number of people on fixed incomes such as Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program using the food bank increased by 50 per cent at Community Care of St. Catharines and Thorold over the past year.

In St. Catharines, Thorold and Welland one in 10 residents and in Niagara Falls, Port Colborne and Wainfleet one in eight residents visited a food bank in 2023.

The report revealed that several Feed Niagara food banks expanded their hours to accommodate people who work during the day.

The policy brief confirms a disturbing trend since the pandemic in which food banks are being used more now than pre-pandemic. A report by Feed Ontario, said more than 800,000 people in the province turned to emergency food support between 2022 and 2023, with the total number of visits to food banks increasing by 36 per cent, or 5.9 million in 2023 compared to 2022.

Heritz said in her brief that the high usage of food banks is the “canary in the coal mine” since food insecurity forces people to use food banks, “but once there, they may be in desperate need of additional support,” such as clothing, rent and utility payment assistance, eviction prevention and counselling services.

Why are there higher numbers of people using food banks in the area? Heritz said there are a variety of reasons, including the high cost of housing, precarious employment and inadequate social assistance supports.

In Ontario, 86 per cent of food bank users are renters or tenants in social housing. More than 50 per cent of them said the high cost of housing is the primary reason they use food banks.

Heritz said people are earning less despite the higher minimum wage. About 50 per cent of minimum wage workers are older than 25 and one in three has a post-secondary education.

Ontario’s minimum wage is $16.55 an hour, and is scheduled to increase to $17.20 per hour on Oct. 1. According to Living Wage Niagara, people in the region need to earn $20.35 an hour to meet their basic needs.

“The minimum wage is a start,” said Heritz. “But you have to remember not every household has two (working) adults.”

There is also the skyrocketing costs of groceries that affects not only individuals but also shelter organizations and charitable groups providing the food. In a macabre ironic situation, individuals who once donated food are now receiving assistance.

YWCA Niagara Region held its inaugural food drive in August because of the high cost of food, raising $4,000 worth of food in 2022 and 2023.

The brief also identified the higher number of people taking advantage of meal programs offered by local charities, such as the Community Breakfast Program at St. George’s Church in St. Catharines. It began in 1996, providing 80 meals. Now that number reaches 100 on a daily basis.

Ozanam Centre in St. Catharines provided lunch to about 50 people each day prior to the pandemic. Now it offers about 140 meals to people each day. In 2022, the centre served 2,194 meals per month, but that has jumped to 2,450 meals per month in 2023.

Heritz said the brief also reveals the high number of children who are using food banks in the region. For instance, 35 per cent of the people served at Project Share in Niagara Falls are 19 years or younger. Organizations such as Food4Kids Niagara, Niagara Nutrition Partners and Community Crew continue to provide lunches to children in 30 schools across the area, reaching more than 24,000 children.

The federal government is proposing to spend $1 billion over the next five years for a national school food program in the 2024 budget. If implemented, it would feed an additional 400,000 children a year.

“This is a step in the right direction,” said Heritz. “We have to address children who are using food banks. Without food these children will have long-term issues. They need three meals a day to improve their long-term health.”

Heritz said the solutions are varied, but they have one thing in common: more funding is desperately needed.

“There is not enough affordable housing,” said Heritz.

“The federal government should institute a basic income program and provide more affordable housing, while the provincial government needs to raise the minimum wage, disability benefits and social assistance rates,” Heritz’s report said. “The province should provide financial assistance to food banks and reinstate COVID-19 funding.”

Heritz said there needs to be better child care and the federal government’s proposed child-care program for families to eventually have a household pay $10 per day is a beginning.

Specifically for the Niagara region, Heritz said the housing supply must be increased either by Niagara Region itself or by securing funding from other levels of government. And the Region should investigate the long-term impacts of severe food insecurity on individuals.

Kevin Werner

 is a reporter/photographer with Niagara This Week.