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Building back means building up those with not enough

Many signs point towards economic recovery – building back, as some call it. But not for hungry people and food banks.

Even before COVID-19 emerged, Ontario food banks were swamped.

Feed Ontario, the province’s largest collective of hunger relief organizations, said prior to the pandemic food bank use had reached an unprecedented high, with more than half a million people accessing food banks. Despite the province’s relatively low unemployment rate, food banks saw almost a 45 per cent increase in the number of adults with employment income accessing their services.

Now, it’s worse. Over the course of the pandemic, the provincial food bank network has experienced a 26 per cent increase in the number of first-time visitors, those being individuals and families who have never accessed a food bank before.

So why isn’t this more of an economic recovery issue?

Probably because hungry people have a muted voice. But Feed Ontario says we need to turn things around if indeed true recovery is going to be realized. In July, Feed Ontario submitted a brief to the Ontario Workforce Recovery Advisory Committee that needs to be top-drawer reading for politicians at the municipal, provincial and federal levels.

It should also be top of mind for the agriculture and food sector, particularly with food costs being one of the public’s biggest concerns.

In its brief, Feed Ontario says changes it proposes would create a stronger workforce in Ontario, “one with increased opportunities that allow Ontarians to not just survive but actually thrive in their communities and contribute to the health and wellbeing of our province.”

Here’s what the organization proposes.

First, it says, the province should think about supporting job quality, not quantity. Statistics look good to politicians and the investment community. And granted, a low unemployment rate is a good metric for assessing what percentage of the province’s total labour force is unemployed. But as of 2019, Ontario had the highest proportion of minimum wage workers in Canada. Some of these workers are the same ones seeking help from food banks. People need quality jobs, which Feed Ontario says requires better labour laws and worker support programs.

As well, it says, improvements must be made to support those transitioning back into the workforce, by increasing earning exemptions and eliminating clawbacks under Ontario’s social assistance programs.

Another recommendation is to invest in women, by removing the barriers they face when entering the workforce. Feed Ontario also wants better support for low-income parents by making childcare more affordable. How many times have we heard that? Still, it’s elusive. Childcare costs are huge stressors for so many people.

And finally, it says, put people at the centre of recovery design by consulting with and including the perspectives of those who are living in poverty and who have experienced significant job loss because of the pandemic.

“They’re the experts on the challenges that they have faced and the ones that will be most impacted by the policies and programs developed through this plan,” it says. “Including the perspectives of people living in poverty and those with lived experience is essential to ensuring that the workforce recovery strategy meets the needs of those it is intended to assist.”

The report is a reminder that a lack of food is much more than an agricultural problem. The root causes are deep in society. But many of the causes are identifiable, as Feed Ontario has shown.

And with economic recovery on politicians’ minds, this is a timely opportunity to address them.

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