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As Household Net Worth Rises in Canada, Food Bank Queues Also Rise

The increase in wealth due to the real estate and stock market boom leaves behind those with lower incomes and few financial assets

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Food insecurity is growing in Canada, a country that has long been proud of its social safety net – including a $ 300 billion pandemic relief program designed to leave no one behind.

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The number of people turning to food banks has increased by 10% in the province of Ontario in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. This matches figures that show food bank usage across the country was significantly higher last March than in 2019.

At first glance, the numbers are hard to reconcile with the data showing that Canadians became much richer during the pandemic. But the rise in household equity was largely due to a housing and inventory boom, leaving behind those with lower incomes and few financial assets. In Ontario, only about 6% of food bank users are owners.

The cost of food and shelter are two of the top three reasons people use a food bank, according to a Food Banks Canada survey. With a recent spike in inflation affecting food and fuel, the situation could worsen in 2022.

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“A volatile combination of high rental costs, rapid food inflation and unemployment linked to the pandemic has created a ‘perfect storm’ that has increased the number of food bank visits over the past year, particularly in large urban areas, “Richard Matern, research director for Food Banks Canada, said in an emailed statement.

Households of greatest concern, especially in urban areas, are those facing higher rental and food costs combined with static income, such as social assistance.

“It’s more about income than about the price of food,” said Valerie Tarasuk, professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto. “What’s most predictive of a person’s food insecurity is their income, not the cost of their rent. “

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Those on the front lines of fighting hunger in Canada say vulnerabilities that have accumulated over the years may be about to worsen as government emergency revenue programs for COVID-19 take end. Matern said his organization expects a “tidal wave” of new customers in the coming months.

Ontario, the most populous province with nearly 15 million people, is a good example. Food bank use has been on the rise since 2017, fueled in part by rising shelter costs for some of the province’s most vulnerable residents.

The pandemic has increased the pressure. Between April 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021, the province’s food banks saw the biggest increase in visits since 2009, according to data from Feed Ontario, an organization of 1,200 organizations fighting hunger.

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“It has to do with a constellation of several issues,” said Siu Mee Cheng, interim general manager of Feed Ontario. “People are willing to give up food to buy a place to live and make sure electricity and water are working. “

Frayed safety net

There is no doubt that the pandemic assistance programs have been beneficial, Cheng said. One of the most important, the Canada Emergency Benefit of $ 2,000 per month, provided many struggling workers with more generous help than they received under traditional EI.

Most of the increase in food bank use during the pandemic has affected segments of the population that were supposed to be protected by other social programs, such as disability or old age benefits, which did not follow. inflation, Cheng said. The proportion of Ontario seniors using food banks is still lower than the general population – around 8% – but this group saw a 36% increase in the 12-month period ended March 31.

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This period does not include the recent increase in food prices. In British Columbia, retail ground beef prices were 8 percent higher in October than they were six months earlier; in Quebec, pork loin increased by 19%. “Significant increases in inflation have really started over the past few months,” Cheng said. “We expect that in the food bank industry, usage will only continue to increase in next year’s report. “

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Yet Tarasuk of the University of Toronto said it was too early to conclude that food insecurity was skyrocketing. “I am wary of claims that it has increased significantly because we don’t have data to suggest it at the moment,” she said.

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What is indisputable is that food inflation has outpaced general inflation in Canada for the past 20 years, according to a new food price report from four universities. Between 2015 and 2019, average food expenditure increased by 16.3% while median income increased by 6.6%.

Supply chain issues, drought and wildfires have added even more pressure to Canada in 2021, according to the report, led by Sylvain Charlebois of Dalhousie University, which projects an overall increase of 5-7% food prices next year.

“This means that Canadians have to spend a higher proportion of their income on food, a trend that has only been exacerbated by COVID-19,” the report said. “The real concerns about food insecurity have persisted in 2021 as wages and salaries for the most part have not kept pace with rising prices.”

Bloomberg.com

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