Report bares rising food bank use, food insecurity among Toronto international students

A key finding of the report is the dramatic increase in food bank utilization, jumping from one in 20 people a year ago to one in 10 currently.

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The annual “Who’s Hungry” report from Toronto’s Daily Bread Food Bank revealed a stark picture of escalating food bank usage in Canada’s most populous city, signaling what the organization describes as an “unprecedented crisis.” 

Food banks in Canada collect and distribute basic food essentials to people in need. The rising use of food banks shows the deepening issue of food insecurity in Toronto, where the rate of food bank use has doubled in just a year. 

Notably, there has been a significant shift in the demographic of food bank users, with a rising number of individuals on temporary status, such as students and visitors, now forming a significant portion of those in need.

A key finding of the report is the dramatic increase in food bank utilization, jumping from one in 20 people a year ago to one in 10 currently. This rise is particularly concerning given the growing proportion of users with temporary status in Canada, such as international students and work visa holders, which has more than doubled from 10% to 24% within a year. The increase in refugee claimants also marks a significant trend.

The report’s findings are further contextualized by a parallel study from the Daily Bread Food Bank, highlighting the burgeoning number of international students in Canada. From 300,000 in 2013, this number has soared to 800,000 in 2023.

International students face financial pressures

The study draws attention to the financial pressures these students face, with living expenses nearly doubling the Canadian government’s stipulated amount of $10,000 per year, exclusive of tuition fees. This figure, unchanged since at least 2015, starkly contrasts with the periods of high inflation, exacerbating the financial strain on students.

“Our staff said they’re coming in such huge numbers and that we’re going to have to do something about it. It caused some concern as to whether or not we would have enough supply,” Food Bank Co-Executive Director Glen Pearson told the CBC broadcaster. 

Misconceptions about the operation of food banks have also been cited as a contributing factor to their increased use, especially among international students. Anecdotal evidence from food banks in London and Brampton indicates a surge in student users, leading to concerns about resource allocation and the adequacy of food supplies. 

“We’re at a point where we need some intervention here on the food banks not being inundated and overwhelmed with people coming to the doors and interfering with the service for those that need help. 

“We’re entering our busiest season, Christmas, when our numbers practically double, just because the pressures on some families become greater this time of year,” the organization’s board president, Catherine Rivera, told the National Post.

These circumstances have prompted some food banks to clarify their purpose and limit services to those in dire need, highlighting the tension between rising demand and limited resources.

Sharp rise in food bank visits

The “Who’s Hungry” report also shows a concerning trend in the overall number of food bank visits, which have risen sharply from less than a million annually in the decade prior to 2020 to over 2.5 million in 2023. This alarming rise reflects the deepening entrenchment of food insecurity in the community, as echoed in the report’s foreword by Neil Hetherington and Ryan Noble, leaders of the Daily Bread and North York Harvest food banks.

“Food insecurity has become embedded in our communities,” says the report’s foreword by Neil Hetherington and Ryan Noble, heads of the Daily Bread and North York Harvest food banks, respectively. “We cannot continue along the same path.”

The report, based on extensive surveys and interviews, sheds light on the dire circumstances faced by food bank clients. Many respondents reported skipping meals or going a day without eating to cover essential expenses like rent. The median daily budget left after paying for rent and utilities has also decreased, further highlighting the precarious financial situation of those reliant on food banks.

Swift and comprehensive action needed

In response to these findings, the report calls for comprehensive action at all government levels. It advocates for enhancements to federal programs like the Canada Disability Benefit, Canada Child Benefit, and Canada Housing Benefit. At the provincial level, it suggests raising the minimum wage and improving social assistance programs. Municipal recommendations include more transit discounts for low-income households and improved housing affordability and eviction prevention strategies.

The report also includes poignant case studies that illustrate the personal impact of this crisis. One such story is of Marigold, a Toronto resident grappling with poverty and disability. Her narrative of resorting to high-interest lenders and ultimately relying on food banks highlights the emotional and financial toll of food insecurity. 

“Before, I used to borrow money from lending places like Money Mart and those places. I just wind up getting into a lot of trouble. It was just really bad. Because once you pay them, there’s nothing left … I owed them money each month, and then I had to go back and get more money. It was just horrible,” she said.

“I was just getting really sick. I had nothing nutritious. So I finally went to the food bank, and it wasn’t too bad, but I cried. I’m standing there in the line, and I’m crying,” she added.

Her experience reflects the broader challenges faced by many in Toronto, where food banks have become a critical but often last-resort solution to a growing problem of affordability and access to basic necessities.

The “Who’s Hungry” report from Toronto’s Daily Bread Food Bank paints a distressing picture of the rapidly escalating need for food banks in Toronto, driven by a complex interplay of economic pressures, demographic shifts, and systemic inadequacies. 

The report not only signals an urgent call for action to address the immediate needs of those affected but also underscores the necessity for long-term, structural solutions to tackle the root causes of food insecurity in Canada’s largest city.

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