Thanksgiving shines a light on food and hunger

This weekend brings Thanksgiving and a holiday Monday, both reasons to celebrate.

That’s not the case for everybody, however, as it’s prime time for The Food Bank of Waterloo Region and its associated agencies such as Woolwich Community Services looking to keep the larders full from now through to Christmas, a time when demand climbs.

As with last holiday season, this one faces the additional hurdle of the pandemic preventing many traditional food drives and other opportunities to collect food.

Last year, 33,355 people in the region required food support, with more than a third of them being children.

The pandemic has seen a dramatic rise in demand, much of it from people seeking food assistance for the first time.

Food bank use in Ontario was on the rise even pre-COVID-19: Between Apr. 1, 2019 and Mar. 31, 2020, 537,575 people accessed food banks across Ontario (an increase of 5.3 per cent over the previous year), visiting more than 3,282,500 times (up 7.3 per cent over the previous year). With the onset of COVID-19, food banks saw a surge in demand: Ontario’s food banks saw a 26 per cent increase in first-time visitors between March and June 2020.

Figures show that while a large percentage of those helped are on social assistance, a significant number are working people. In Waterloo Region, 16 per cent are working with another three per cent on EI (recently working), 31 per cent receive social assistance and 24 per cent receive disability benefits.

Also in keeping with trends, single people living alone are the fastest growing segment of users. Of those using services in Waterloo Region, single-person households rose from 27 per cent of those needing food support in 2013 to 50 per cent today.

Provincially, Feed Ontario’s data show that the primary drivers of continued growth in food bank use are an inadequate social safety net, precarious employment, and unaffordable housing. While the provincial food bank network does not collect data pertaining to race, Feed Ontario says it recognizes that Black and Indigenous people are disproportionately impacted by poverty and food insecurity, as well as the role that systemic racism and inequality plays in creating barriers to opportunities that are otherwise accessible to most Canadians.

According to the provincial report, the number of employed or recently employed Ontarians accessing food assistance for the first time sits at 12.8 per cent. That number was significantly higher in Waterloo Region, which comes in at 19 per cent, up from 18 per cent during the same time frame in 2019.

While this increase can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, other factors – such as Waterloo Region’s high cost of living, steadily climbing food prices, and the growing gap in social safety nets – continue to play a role in someone’s ability to afford food, says Food Bank of Waterloo Region.

Waterloo Region residents of many different backgrounds rely on the support of emergency food assistance. Some 19 per cent of those who rely on emergency assistance are the working poor, this includes those who are working full-time, part-time or are receiving employment insurance. Others acquire their primary income from Ontario Works (31 per cent), Ontario Disability Support (23 per cent), old-age pension (seven per cent), student loans (one per cent), disability (one per cent), while eight per cent have no income and 10 per cent of participants’ income is unknown.

While demand is highest in the cities, the rural townships are not exempt: Woolwich Community Services, which looks after Woolwich and part of Wellesley, faces the same need to re-stock its shelves. Dropping off a few items is an easy task. Then go and enjoy the rest of the long weekend, knowing there’s plenty to be thankful for.

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