by Wendy Campbell
It has been described as “the perfect storm.”
A volatile combination of rising food prices, skyrocketing housing costs and low incomes made it an extremely challenging year for food banks across the country. Food Bank Canada’s HungerCount 2021 report, which provides a comprehensive look at food bank usage across the nation, reported a 20.3 percent increase in visits compared to March 2019 — the largest increase in visits since the country was plunged into a recession in 2008. While single-person households remain the most common demographic accessing food banks, one-third of all clients are children, who have become increasingly vulnerable to poverty and hunger as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Food banks across Canada have collectively expressed concerns over deepening levels of food insecurity brought on by unsustainable cost-of-living increases. For years, the price of food has substantially outpaced the growth of median incomes. The unrelenting housing market has also been driving up rents across Canada. In Waterloo Region, rental rates have increased by approximately 20 to 34 per cent compared to last year, depending on unit size. With 68 per cent of food bank users living in rental housing, shelter and utilities are devouring the majority of household budgets.
While these factors have contributed to rising food insecurity for years, they were exacerbated by high unemployment rates brought on by the pandemic. Three million jobs were lost when the first lockdown came into effect in March 2020, and the unemployment rate skyrocketed from 7.8 per cent to 13 per cent by April 2020. The Food Bank of Waterloo Region saw a 26-per-cent increase in daily visits compared to 2019. Other food banks in urban areas across the country saw increases of 50 per cent or more.
It is difficult to find the silver lining in reports that detail our nation’s growing food insecurity and the socio-economic challenges facing so many Canadians. But there is some good news in the HungerCount 2021 report. It provides a glimpse into what could happen when a basic-income-style program is implemented nationwide and the potential for that initiative to significantly reduce food insecurity and food bank use.
The basic-income-style program referenced is of course the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), a program introduced by the federal government providing financial support to those impacted by the pandemic. CERB offered eligible recipients up to $2,000 per month to offset the loss of earnings. When the program was up and running, food banks reported a slight decrease in the number of daily users. It helped to “flatten the curve” of food bank use. Unfortunately, this temporary measure ended in September 2020, which coincided with a return of clients who, without the additional financial assistance, fell below the poverty line.
While CERB has been characterized as a one-time policy measure to help get Canadians over the hump of an unprecedented economic shock, it is much more than that. The program gave us valuable insights into the potential benefits of a minimum income floor. People had enough money to cover their monthly expenses, providing financial stability and empowering those who were otherwise at the whim of inconsistent and often inadequate social policies or emergency programs.
The HungerCount 2021 report includes a minimum income floor as a policy recommendation to help tackle food insecurity in Canada. Other policy recommendations include new supports for renters living with low incomes; expanded supports for low-wage and unemployed workers; increased supports for low-income single adults; and enhanced measures to reduce northern food insecurity.
These policy recommendations are more than just suggestions. They are evidence-based policy alternatives that address all factors that have culminated in “the perfect storm.” It is our responsibility to stem the tide and seize this opportunity to build a better future for all Canadians.
Wendi Campbell is the CEO at The Food Bank of Waterloo Region.