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Even those with jobs are increasingly reliant on food banks

Woolwich Community Services’ Tina Reed and volunteer Carol Jongerius take stock at the WCS food bank. [Veronica Reiner / The Observer]

An increasing number of full- and part-time workers across Ontario are accessing food bank services, a trend that can be seen in Woolwich Township as well as the Region of Waterloo as a whole.

A report released this week by Feed Ontario shows a 27 per cent increase in the number of individuals with employment income using food bank services over the past three years.

“Seeing that trend of employed individuals… is very concerning for us,” said the organization’s executive director, Carolyn Stewart. “Because obviously, it’s not someone you would first expect to be visiting a food bank.”

Throughout 2018, 34,552 people accessed these services in the region, according to Katherine MacDuff, manager of network programs and planning at the Food Bank of Waterloo Region.

“That’s about one in 20 households,” said MacDuff. “So it’s the case where in every community, on every street, there is someone who has to access food assistance. So it’s not something that’s localized to one area of the Waterloo Region – it’s an issue that impacts households across the area.”

The demographics of those accessing the services is also shifting: throughout 2018, 3,659 households accessed food assistance at the Food Bank of Waterloo Region for the first time.

The number of single households accessing food assistance has increased, nearly doubling since 2012. Approximately one-third of those visiting the food bank are under age 18.

“So we’re serving a number of children in the local area,” said MacDuff.

In response to this unsettling trend, Woolwich Community Services executive director Kelly Christie said the agency has offered additional support throughout the past several years.

“We have seen that increase in the working minimum wage earners struggling to make ends meet, and that’s why we have already extended our support to the people living in our community,” she explained.

WCS offers low-income families backpacks and school supplies through their backpack program, new toys, clothing and food items through the Christmas Goodwill program, employment services, and a budgeting program to meet the growing demand.

The low-income cut-off that determines who is eligible to access these services depends on the family size and household take home pay. WCS uses figures from Statistics Canada as a guideline.

Across the province, 510,438 individuals accessed a food bank last year (a two per cent increase from the prior year) and visited over 3,059,000 times (up four per cent). Stewart suggests this is reflective of larger issues.

“This shows us that the employment landscape here in Ontario is really shifting,” she said. “A lot of people right now are talking about how the unemployment rate is quite low, but unfortunately the employment rate doesn’t actually speak to the quality of jobs that are being created.

“So people might be employed, they’re not really employed in quality employment that perhaps is full-time, has proper benefits and support. It’s people working precarious work – temporary, contract, part time positions, minimum wage positions – so they’re holding multiple jobs at the same time to try to cover all of their expenses.”

The number of temporary positions, classified as “casual, seasonal, and contract roles,” has increased by 31 per cent since 1998. According to the report, adults over the age of 25 now hold nearly half of all minimum wage jobs in the province, and one in three have post-secondary education.

“Low wages and/or insufficient hours” as well as “benefit/social assistance changes” are listed as two of the most common reasons for needing support, according to Ontario’s food bank data.

Changes to worker programs like the WSIB and Employment Insurance (EI) have made it more difficult for the recently unemployed or injured workers to access support. Many Ontarians have no choice but to move on to Ontario Works or the Ontario Disability Support Program as a result, two programs not intended for this purpose.

For example, Ontario Works provides recipients with $733 per month. The average single person household would need roughly $1,600 a month for basic necessities.

“That, coupled with the longstanding increases of cost of living, are making it increasingly challenging to stretch an already stretched budget,” said Stewart. “I think everyone across Ontario can agree that housing is far too expensive in this province and really making it challenging for individuals to access secure and safe housing.”

Feed Ontario offered several solutions as to how to solve this issue moving forward, including improving increases to social assistance rates, an inclusive definition of the provincial definition of ‘disability,’ and the development of portable housing benefit.

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