'Tale of two cities': Toronto food bank challenges 'most livable' label
Emily Chan, CTVNews.ca
Published Monday, September 21, 2015 1:21PM EDT
Last Updated Monday, September 21, 2015 2:24PM EDT
Toronto often ranks high on lists of the world's best places to live, but for tens of thousands of food bank users coping with high housing costs, Canada's largest city might not feel so livable, a new report says.
The annual "Who's Hungry" report was released by Toronto's Daily Bread Food Bank on Monday morning. The report tracks food bank usage since 2008, and says the trends tell a "Tale of Two Cities."
Richard Matern, the report's author, says the phrase "two cities" reflects the differences between Toronto's reputation and the reality many residents face.
"In a figurative sense we have two cities," Matern said in a phone interview with CTVNews.ca. "We've been called the most livable city in the world and we've been praised because of how it works for business, but at the same time you have this growing core of people who are living in deep poverty."
Matern said Toronto can also feel like two different cities depending on where residents live.
In the core of the city, within the pre-amalgamation borders, food bank usage is down 16 per cent since 2008. But in the "inner suburbs" – areas such as Etobicoke, Scarborough, and North York—food bank usage is up 45 per cent in that same time period, the report says.
"We've seen this huge change in terms of where people are accessing food banks," Matern said.
The report singles out housing costs as the "most common issue" driving clients out of the city's core and into food banks in the inner suburbs.
"People are finding they just cannot afford to live in the city core," Matern said. "In particular, families with children. There's just no way they can afford anything close to market rent in the city core if they're either working poor or if they're receiving income social assistance."
Increased reliance on food banks
Beyond the geographic disparities, Matern said the report's "most surprising" finding is that Torontonians are relying on food banks for increasingly longer periods of time.
In 2008, Toronto users relied on the food bank for an average of 12 months at a time. But now, the report says, that's doubled to 24 months, or two years.
Part of the problem, Matern said, is that social assistance has failed to keep up with rising housing costs.
He said this has been particularly hard on people with disabilities.
In the past, Matern said, many relying on disability support could afford to buy groceries a few times a month, and only relied on the food bank infrequently. But in recent years, the Daily Bread has seen a shift.
"Now, a lot of them only get their food from the food bank, because the cost of food has outpaced what their income is," he said.
In addition to people with disabilities and families, Matern said single people living on social assistance are also vulnerable to food insecurity.
Food banks also feeling the pinch
It isn't only food bank users who are seeking cheaper rent outside the city core.
Food banks themselves are also coping with expensive leases and limited available space downtown.
Matern said that, in the last few years, at least one East York food bank was forced to shut down because it couldn't afford to keep paying rent, and multiple others are currently struggling to afford to stay downtown.
How to help
On a policy level, Matern said the provincial government has already rolled poverty reduction strategies. The 2014-2019 strategy calls on the province to break the cycle of poverty for children and youth, help provide nutritious meals for students, identify and treat mental health issues early on, and take other steps to help lift residents out of poverty.
Meanwhile, the City of Toronto currently has an "interim poverty strategy" in place while it finalizes its own official plan. The interim strategy has three overall goals: to address the immediate needs of those living in poverty, to create "pathways to prosperity" by improving job quality and attracting investment to low income areas, and to create systemic change by making the government more accountable and making poverty reduction "part of day-to-day" business.
Now, the Daily Bread is pushing for a similar plan at the national level and hoping that federal candidates will get on board as the October election approaches, Matern said.
The Daily Bread Food Bank is a registered Canadian charity that runs two food banks in Toronto, and helps distribute food to other food banks in the GTA. In the last year, 896,900 people visited a Toronto food bank, the "Who's Hungry" report says.