FOOD INSTABILITY IN ONTARIO
Many people in Ontario struggle with the cost of food. If the increase in costs in 2022 has felt extreme, that’s because it has been. This year, food prices have increased by more than 6.5%, which is the largest annual jump in over a decade.
In this landscape, Loblaws, Canada’s largest food retailer, has reported record profits this quarter. It reported a 40% increase in profits from the same time last year.
Paul Taylor of FoodShare Toronto—a food justice organization—points to low wages, the lack of affordable housing and affordable public transit, and traditionally low-cost food businesses being priced out of gentrifying neighbourhoods as being causes of food insecurity.
He states that “the most effective remedy for food insecurity is also the simplest: provide people with income to purchase food and their health quickly improves.”
A note about farmland: In order to continue to grow food locally, it is vital that we stop projects like Highway 413, which would deprive us of critical local farmland. You can read more about farmland loss here.
WHO IS FOOD INSECURITY HITTING HARDEST?
The people most likely to experience food insecurity in Ontario are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) individuals, people with disabilities, and renters. These are also traditionally the people who hold the majority of low-wage jobs in our province.
Toronto’s Black Food Sovereignty Plan found that Black families in Toronto are 3.5 times more likely than white families to be food-insecure.
For those who rely on social assistance like Ontario Works or ODSP, their income is simply not enough to meet basic needs, especially for those who live in Toronto. 25% of the Daily Bread Food Bank’s users report ODSP as their main source of income.
Twenty five percent of households that renters are food insecure vs 7.2% of home owners.
THE PROBLEM WITH FOOD BANKS
Food banks were never intended to be a long-term solution and many people who run them express frustration that governments continue to treat them as long-term solutions. Activists assert that these organizations are band-aid solutions that can not solve the systemic problems responsible for food insecurity.
Food banks fool the public into thinking that the fundamental causes are being addressed, all without threatening the power for-profit companies have over food access or tackling poverty.
Not everyone who is food-insecure uses food banks. Many users of food banks report feelings of shame, desperation, or embarrassment. For these reasons, people also avoid them. The University of Toronto’s PROOF research team, which specializes in food insecurity, estimated that only 23% of those experiencing food insecurity use food banks.
Additionally, for those with special dietary requirements, food banks offer limited options. As many of the people experiencing food insecurity are disabled, this is especially of concern.
There are also issues of availability. Since many of these organizations rely on volunteers, they can not be open every day or for regular business hours. Additionally, there is often a limit to how many times a household can use a food bank in a given period.
Despite all of these issues, many people are still relying on food banks to access food. A University of Calgary report released in May of this year found that between 2014-2020, usage of the Daily Bread Food Bank increased by 53% and usage correlated most strongly with increase in rent and food prices.
INSUFFICIENT FUNDING OF SOCIAL SUPPORTS
Instead of tackling the greater systemic issues that cause food insecurity, the Conservative government has acted as though it’s addressing the problem simply by funding food banks.
When challenged on their lack of support for those in poverty, the party pointed to this funding. However, as per the Financial Accountability Office, the government underfunded both Ontario Works and ODSP in 2021.
ODSP rates have not increased since 2018. The maximum monthly payment for a single person is $672 for basic needs and $497 for shelter, for a total of $1,169. In comparison, the most a single person could receive from ODSP in 2012 was $1,064.
A recent report from researchers at the University of Toronto found that 70 per cent of households which rely on social assistance are food-insecure.
Most food-insecure households are in the workforce. Sixty five percent of Daily Break Food Bank users reported their main source of income as salary from employment. However, low wages and precarious work mean that simply being employed is not enough to guarantee you can meet your basic needs in Ontario. The Ontario Living Wage Network found that the lowest hourly wage to meet basic needs in Ontario is $16.20 (Sault Ste. Marie), while the highest is $22.08 (Toronto). The current Ontario minimum wage is $15.50.
People in Ontario need to have more money coming in to account for rising costs.
Although it still wouldn’t be enough to ensure basic costs are met, the University of Calgary report shows that even a $1 increase in minimum wage would lead to 37,000 fewer visits to food banks annually in Toronto and 188,000 fewer visits across Ontario. It also shows that an increase of even $15 per month in ODSP would be associated with 54,000 fewer visits to food banks annually in Toronto and 273,000 fewer visits across Ontario.
Surely, we must aim higher. Ontario has the country’s highest proportion of minimum-wage workers. We must work to provide greater job security, paid sick days and a minimum wage in line with the actual cost of living. Unions must be supported to ensure that the rights of workers are protected and advanced.
ODSP and Ontario Works and Ontario Works must also appropriately reflect the cost of living. Penalties for money earned while accessing these supports must be eliminated.
What are the parties saying about housing?
Since food security has been so clearly linked to social supports, you will also find their stances on ODSP, OntarioWorks, Minimum Wage, and unions below.
Ford’s government has been, and continues to be, friends to the business owners, not the workers. Immediately upon being elected, his government cancelled the scheduled $1 raise to minimum wage. For the first year of the pandemic, he refused to give low-wage workers paid sick leave. In 2021, he finally relented, but laid the cost of this on the taxpayers, instead of on the businesses. In 2022, the government proposed Bill 88, which would afford app-based workers even less protection than Ontario’s basic labour laws. He also capped wage increases at 1% for three years for public sector workers.
Although Ford has received endorsements from some unions and publicly said that he is pro-union, his actions have demonstrated otherwise. The cap in wage increases (Bill 124) has put him in conflict with OPSEU and other public sector unions since 2019. He oversaw cuts to education and has been in near-constant conflict with teachers’ unions since taking office.
ODSP & OntarioWorks
The PC party did not include any increase to ODSP in their 2022 budget, which is serving as their election platform, but have since pledged to increase ODSP by 5%. Doug Ford has said that the best way to support Ontarians with disabilities is to “give them a job.”
Immediately after coming into office, Doug Ford cancelled upcoming increases to the minimum wage. Recently, he has promised to increase the minimum wage by 50 cents in the fall. However, this is an existing legal requirement to increase the minimum wage every October 1 framed as a campaign promise.
Some unions are supporting individual Liberal candidates.
ODSP & OntarioWorks
The Liberals have pledged to increase ODSP by 20% in the next two years—10% per year. They will also increase the amount a person on ODSP can earn before their benefits are reduced to $6,000 per year. They have also pledged to streamline the process of application for ODSP. They have pledged to immediately increase Ontario Works by 10%.
The Liberals have promised to increase the minimum wage to $16 by 2023. They have said they would then engage in consultations to determine increases.
The Liberals will also remove the HST on prepared foods under $20. They also hope to change negotiations between food retailers and suppliers.
Ontario’s largest union, the Ontario Federation of Labour, has thrown its support behind the NDP. Most unions have, in fact, voiced support for the NDP.
ODSP & OntarioWorks
The NDP initially pledged to increase ODSP by 20% and to index raises in this rate to inflation. Under pressure from activists, they have also pledged to double ODSP from its current level during their second year in office. They have also pledged to streamline the process of application for ODSP. They pledge to immediately begin a process based on evidence-based approach to set ODSP and OW rates to lift people out of poverty and to be in line with actual cost of living.
The NDP have promised to increase the minimum wage to $16 by the fall of 2022. The have said they will increase in slowly to $20 by 2026. After that, it would be indexed to inflation.
The NDP also back a ‘grocery store code of conduct‘ to ensure grocery stores negotiate fairly with suppliers.
The Green Party has been outspoken against the PCs bill capping wage increases for public sector workers since it was introduced in 2019. The Service Employees International Union is supporting the Green Party in this election.
ODSP & OntarioWorks
The Green Party has pledged to phase in a Basic Income program. They have pledged to double both ODSP and Ontario Works. This is the largest commitment of any of the parties.
Under the Green Party plan, they would increase the minimum wage to $16 in 2022, then by $1 each year until it reached $20.
Support Grocery Store Code of conduct. The Greens would also provide start-up funding for healthy food markets and community gardens.
More details on the major parties’ food-specific promises are available in this CBC article.