HUNGERCOUNT 2021 REPORT summarizes food bank usage during the pandemic, touts social policies that help with wages and costs of living

The HungerCount 2021 report was released on Oct. 28, 2021 and provided a summary of food bank usage throughout the pandemic as well as policy recommendations. It said that visits to the food bank The report emphasized that the pandemic amplified pre-existing social problems that need to be addressed.

Wendi Campbell, CEO of the Food Bank of Waterloo Region, said that the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) helped mitigate increased food bank usage at the beginning of the pandemic. Although the mode of operations changed, the Food Bank saw fewer people requiring their services. Returning to the pre-pandemic normals would be taking steps back as it showed the positive impact of strong policies. 

“[We] can’t go back to pre pandemic normal because I think we have learned—as a food bank, as a community, as a network of social service partners across Canada—we have seen this difference enhancing social assistance programmes,” Campbell said. 

“And so we’ve shown that a minimum income or basic income actually makes a difference in people’s lives. And people ability to have the economic security to get food on on their own. And so we don’t want to go back. We want this to be a moment in time where we can shed some light on what does work and how collaborative approaches make a difference in the lives of the most vulnerable people in our country,” she said.  

The report stated that there are different demographics that require the most aid depending on the environment. In urban areas, it was single people living alone that used the food bank the most while in rural areas, seniors and people with disabilities struggle with rising costs of living. Racialized people were also disproportionately impacted in urban areas. 

In Waterloo Region, Campbell said both the urban and the rural insights are important. 

“What’s interesting about our network is that, you know, our food assistance network in Waterloo Region is working with programs in the large urban centre, but also in the rural community… So it adds a level of complexity,” she said.

Of the food banks that saw decreased usage, anecdotal evidence suggested that increased financial support, quarantine restrictions and “pop-up” food security initiatives contributed to the decrease. However, people that experienced job loss due to the continuing pandemic and lockdowns were accessing the food banks more often. 

“Even with the wider base of support that the new support system offered, however, the pandemic and its economic impacts persisted, as more contagious variants of the virus emerged and the strain on the health care system worsened…People who were unemployed because of the pandemic, single-parent households, recent immigrants, and racialized or Indigenous communities experienced significantly more hardship than other groups,” the report stated. 

In particular, the rising costs of living contribute to more usage of the food banks. According to the report, several contributing factors to food bank usage were amplified during the pandemic. 

“Regardless of where the food banks were located, rapid food inflation, high housing-related costs, and low incomes—whether related to low benefit levels, job loss, or both—were the main reasons people gave for accessing food banks. These factors have also increased the frequency of need for food banks,” it said. 

For dealing with the deepening poverty during the pandemic, food banks often increased the amount of food they offered—where they normally limited access to once per month, they allowed more frequent visits to sometimes bi-weekly or even weekly. 

The report includes five policy recommendations: increased support for low income renters, modernization and expansion of supports for low wage and unemployed workers, progression toward a minimum income floor, increased support for low income single adults and more measures to reduce northern food insecurity. 

“We have a role to play as a food bank as part of a national network to start having really meaningful conversations about what are those things that we can do as governments as community partners, through things Canada has laid out a number of recommendations in the report for lasting policy change that will make a difference,” Campbell said.  

As the region has been facing a housing crisis, the first recommendation is especially relevant. The report recommends implementing national rent support program, increasing the investment in the Canada Housing Benefit, introducing new investments and building supportive housing for people with mental and physical health disabilities, and exploring new and faster ways of acquiring affordable housing. 

Even prior to the pandemic, food banks have been reporting every year that the high cost of housing is one of the main reasons people walk through their doors looking for support,” the report stated. “Since the beginning of the pandemic, we believe that the CERB and other pandemic-related supports, combined with local and provincial moratoriums on evictions and deferred payments, have stemmed the tide of renters having to seek help from their food banks, but we expect that to change.” 

Campbell said fighting for the social policies that showed fewer people needing access to food banks is worth fighting for. She said Waterloo Region has one of the most innovative food access networks in Canada because the community takes a collaborative approach. 

I think that nobody deserves to be hungry and nobody should have to worry about where their next meal comes from…It’s complicated to apply an act of social assistance and it’s just adding layers of complexity to people’s lives. And we have all lived through 19 months of everything that we do in the world now is complicated. And how do we make things easier for everybody including the lives of those who can’t do it on their own? And so what are the other systems and support that we can improve?,” she said.

“If you’re hungry, you can’t navigate all of these systems. So let’s make sure people are fed first. But we want to make those connections easier for people to access those supports and services as well. So that they can work towards improving their lives, improving their economic security, their stability, their job security. [And we need to be] working in collaboration with governments to make long lasting change,” Campbell said.