Does anybody really know how many Torontonians rely on food banks?
Chris Selley | Oct 17, 2007 | 21:43:31
The plight of the urban poor is one of the Toronto Star's most cherished issues—so much so, apparently, that of late they've taken to cloning them. "Last year," the paper's editorialists wrote recently, "more than 905,000 across the Greater Toronto Area depended on food banks." This, surely, would give even the hardest heart cause to bleed—that's nearly one in six Torontonians! But Fact Check brings good news—or better news, anyway, considering how many Torontonians are struggling to make ends meat. The Star seriously misrepresented the statistic in question, and they seemed to recognize that in time for their next editorial on the subject, which appeared, appropriately enough, on Thanksgiving Monday. A "total of 905,000 people visited food banks across the Greater Toronto Area in the past year," they wrote, "40 per cent of them children." This shades closer to the terminology used by the statistic's creators, the Daily Bread Food Bank—and at this point we may be splitting hairs—but it's still not technically correct.
Michael Oliphant, Daily Bread's director of research and communications, explains that the "total food bank use" figure, which has been on the rise since 2000, includes every physical visit to a food bank as well as every person fed by each of those visits. So if someone collects food twice a month for a family of four, in other words, he or she would count for 96 visits over a year.
The Canadian Association of Food Banks estimates that 330,491 individuals used food banks in Ontario in March 2006, representing 85,760 households. Daily Bread used to produce similar figures, but Oliphant says they were deemed too unreliable. He claims the organization is developing a more advanced way to estimate how many individual Torontonians rely on food banks, which would be a welcome development. To the layman, the current figure says as much about how often people use food banks as about how many. And this statistical divide makes it difficult to wrap one's head around Daily Bread's most amazing number, which is that food bank use in the GTA has risen 81 per cent since 1995.
Figures provided to Macleans.ca by Daily Bread confirm an increase in that range, and certainly not a steady one—food bank usage shot up 34 per cent from 1995 to 1996 alone. By 1997 the figure was already 53 per cent higher than 1995, remaining relatively stable until 2005, when it rose another 10 per cent. It's important to note that the population of the GTA has grown roughly 20 per cent since 1996—so assuming all other variables stayed the same, it's really more like a 50 per cent increase from 1995 once you adjust for population. Still, that's hardly small beans.
Daily Bread attributes the enormous jump after 1995 to cuts in welfare under the Mike Harris regime. "People were seeing their income cut by 22 per cent almost overnight," says Oliphant. "That caused a huge increase, which we really haven't recovered from." Indeed, according to inflation-adjusted estimates from the Canada Council of Welfare, a couple with two children on welfare in Ontario had an income of $25,741 in 1995—ten years later it was $19,302, a decline of 25 per cent.
But the earlier food bank figures show that 1995 lies at the bottom of a valley—roughly 35 per cent lower than 1994, and the third drop in as many years. It's not just welfare rates in play, clearly, but, as Oliphant notes, the overall economic times in which we live. In many ways, then, 1995 represents a kind of perfect storm, coming after a return to prosperity from recession in the early 1990s and before the Common Sense Revolution took a fair chunk of cash out of welfare recipients' pockets. Daily Bread is an anti-hunger advocacy group, not just a distributor of food, and big numbers bring attention to their worthy cause. But these are good economic times also, or so we are assured, and yet food bank usage has risen every year since 2001. All the more reason, it seems, to strive for a more accurate statistical picture of Toronto's hungry.