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Food bank visits on the rise in Durham

Volunteers were busy collecting food donations at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Oshawa on the wekend.

By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express

According to statistics from the Daily Bread Food Bank, the number of people in Toronto visiting food banks has risen to levels greater to the recession of 2007-2009, and a similar trend appears to be happening in Durham Region.

The Daily Bread Food Bank recently released its 2017 “Who’s Hungry” report, which revealed food bank visits in the province’s capital are up 24 per cent since 2008 and nine per cent since 2016.

Feed The Need In Durham is the region’s distributor for local food banks, and executive director Ben Earle says visits are on the upswing here as well.

“We are definitely seeing a rise. Our member groups have seen an increase year-over-year,” Earle states.

This fall, for the first time ever, Feed The Need In Durham will conduct its own “hunger count” to see just what the situation is locally.

Earle says local data will likely be released in November, in conjunction with the Ontario Association of Food Banks’ annual report.

As for the reasons why more people are using food banks, there are various factors at play.

“The rising costs of housing is a big factor, driven by low vacancy rates…there is not a lot available,” Earle says. “We see a lot of people who are spending 30 to 50 per cent of their income on housing, which doesn’t leave a lot left for food.”

Earle also noted a gradual rise in food costs, especially healthier choices, in the past few years.

Despite the increase in visits, the amount of donations doesn’t seem to be increasing at a high rate, so Earle says local food banks are having to ramp up their efforts.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints recently held a “Canada 150” community food drive in Durham, Northumberland and Kawartha Lakes, with a goal of collecting 150,000 pounds of food through Sept. 23, with local donations going to Feed The Need In Durham. The event was also held in conjunction with Hunger Awareness Week across Canada.

Large-scale drives such as these are becoming more prominent as food banks find their shelves emptying at a quicker rate.

The need in Oshawa is particularly prevalent with most of Feed The Need’s largest partners, including the Oshawa Salvation Army, Simcoe Settlement House, and New Life Neighbourhood Centre located in the city.

In fact, Earle says a church in Whitby that recently joined Feed The Need’s network, reports that more than half its clients are coming in from Oshawa.

As to who exactly is using food banks, Earle says the answer is often more varied than expected.

“There’s this idea that food banks are only used by people on Ontario Works or disability, and those people are definitely having trouble making ends meet, but we are seeing a growing number of families where one parent is working, or maybe it’s a single parent working one job or more, and seniors who just don’t have enough.”

Earle says it is incorrect to assume these people are using food banks on a weekly or even daily basis.

“Another misconception is that people are becoming totally reliant on food banks and it is their only source of food, and that is just not true.”
According to Feed the Need’s data, the average food bank user in Durham Region makes seven visits a year.

“This indicates that people are going through cycles, they are okay for a period, then all of a sudden, they can’t make ends meet and have to visit a food bank,” Earle says.

As a non-profit organization, the majority of Feed The Need’s revenue comes through donations from businesses, individuals and local organizations, however, some local government funding is provided.

“We get $45,000 from the region which covers most of our transportation costs and the City of Oshawa, Municipality of Clarington and now the Town of Whitby provide us with community grants, which equals about $60,000,” Earle says, noting they have also benefited from an Ontario Trillium Foundation grant over the past few years.

Local government has a vital role to play in the creation of a “broad food system” through policies, such as by-laws dictating what type of food people can grow on their own properties.

“Even before I was with Feed The Need, I worked with the Durham Food Policy Council. Once of the things we do talk about there is food being a right, and not just the role of the local government, but the whole community in developing a healthy, sustainable and secure food system that supports us locally.”

For Earle, while there has been some discussions on the local level regarding a healthy food system, it has not occurred in “any sustained way.”

With the federal government developing a national food strategy and the provincial government addressing issues such as a basic income and minimum wage, Earle says there is good work being done, but obviously there needs to be more.

For Earle personally, the increase in food bank visits causes mixed emotions.

“It can be discouraging, because you know that our member agencies are doing everything they can, and because you could be doing things to discourage it from happening, but at the same time, it also is very encouraging and hopeful because you see the response from the community,” he states.

“We could go anywhere and say there are people hungry and they could be your neighbours, they could be the kids your kids go to school with, and people just open up with generosity whether it be a financial donation or a food drive. They say we want to help and let’s make sure everyone in the community has what they need – then you are not as discouraged.”

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