It’s time to hear the alarms

It has been a full year since Food Banks Canada sounded the alarms in the HungerCount 2022 report. With the cost-of-living crisis already knocking on the front door, we warned that action needed to be taken immediately to help the millions of struggling Canadians from coast to coast to coast.

It has been a full year since Food Banks Canada sounded the alarms in the HungerCount 2022 report. With the cost-of-living crisis already knocking on the front door, we warned that action needed to be taken immediately to help the millions of struggling Canadians from coast to coast to coast.

Unfortunately, the story of 2023 is one of government inaction across the country. Our warning has largely gone unheeded—and the repercussions are clear, with nearly 2 million food bank visits in one month alone. The state of poverty and food insecurity in Canada has reached alarming heights.

Despite the poverty rates being relatively low in historical terms, we are seeing signs that people in Canada are struggling profoundly. Food insecurity rates have skyrocketed, with nearly one in five Canadians finding it difficult to bring food to the table each day. The current financial challenges have resulted in growing mental health problems and stress related to finances. There is a palpable anxiety, with many people across the country growing increasingly concerned about how to meet their fundamental financial responsibilities like paying their rent, filling up their car to get to work, and paying for necessary prescriptions.

The lack of government action has only exacerbated the problems we were seeing a year ago, and in some cases, for decades prior.

People with fixed incomes, including seniors and students, continue to struggle disproportionately as their dollars are being spread thinner. Seniors, who should be enjoying their retirement years, are instead taking time out of their day to visit the food bank. And students, who should be focusing on their education, are distracted by the unexpected stress of managing an impossible financial situation.

Challenges are also continuing to grow for working people, renters, and people living in remote and northern regions of Canada. Moreover, racialized Canadians are disproportionately impacted by each of these factors. The systemic barriers they face have been further exacerbated by the economic and affordability crisis of the past few years.

And still we are seeing so little government action to help those who are struggling so much. Our warning call last year has either been unheard or ignored. Despite repeated pleas and warnings from advocacy groups and experts across the country, including our own, there is still a lack of meaningful action from every level of government. As the social safety net continues to let countless people fall through the cracks, food banks are left to pick up the slack.

While these challenges have reached new heights in the past couple of years, they stem from issues that began decades ago. It is time for governments to listen to the experts and people on the ground who witness poverty and food insecurity every day. Going back to last year’s report, this means we need governments to take a dual approach—one in which they tackle the root causes of food bank use, which are low incomes and poverty, while also tackling the immediate need for relief for millions of people. The steps are clear: listen now, provide relief today, introduce solutions for long-term change, and eventually we will see a Canada where no one goes hungry.

The Erosion of Our Social Safety Net

Looking back fifty years ago, Canada had a relatively robust social safety net. Governments at all levels provided supports in many areas, including housing, health care, education, and social assistance. In the last two decades of the 20th century, however, that net began to erode significantly as governments sought to reduce spending and assign more responsibility to the individual for economic and social wellbeing. While programs remained, they became more difficult to access and less effective in supporting low-income individuals and families.

Today, we are left with a social safety net that is filled with holes and that allows millions of people in Canada to fall through it and into a life of poverty. Record-breaking numbers of food bank visits this year demonstrate that when Canadians have been failed by government systems for support, they turn to food banks as an unofficial social safety net.

An effective social safety net should ensure that no person in Canada drops below a certain threshold of poverty. In other words, a functioning social safety net acts as a minimum floor that no person can fall beneath.

The Four Pillars of an Income Floor for All

In last year’s HungerCount report, we outlined the need to expand Canada’s social safety net through the development of a minimum income floor for all people in Canada. While far from perfect, it can be said that there are currently two existing pillars to Canada’s income floor. Seniors have an income floor through the Canada Pension Plan (CPP), Old Age Security (OAS), and Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS), and families with children have an income floor through the Canada Child Benefit (CCB) that will soon be bolstered by stronger affordable childcare programs. However, serious concerns remain about the effectiveness of the latter program as there are currently not enough spaces for all children.

These two foundational pillars are important, albeit imperfect, advancements in Canada’s social safety net. And they represent only two of the four necessary pillars that could help lead us toward a Canada-wide minimum income floor. That income floor must also include a pillar for people who are living with a disability and for single/unattached working-age adults (singles). Together, these four pillars would ensure that a reliable floor is in place for all people in Canada and that nobody gets left behind.

In March of this year, 14 per cent of food bank users stated that disability support was their main source of income. This number has remained steadily high for years. Due to completely inadequate rates of support, the proportion of food bank visitors who rely on disability support compared to general population levels is shocking. In 2022, only 4.3 per cent of the population in Ontario was receiving provincial disability support— and 30 per cent of food bank users indicated disability support as their main income source. The numbers peaked in Alberta, where people receiving disability supports were 840 per cent more represented in food banks than other groups.

Singles are another group of individuals whom Food Banks Canada has been concerned about for many years. Now representing 44 per cent of food bank users, they are one of the largest subsets of people visiting the food bank. Once again, this problem arises due to a lack of government supports for people outside of families or who are below the age of 65.

The process of building and improving income floors takes time, so governments must begin this vital work today. If they took meaningful action to improve the social safety net, far fewer people in Canada would face food insecurity and poverty in the long term. In the short term, the federal government cannot let future goals take away from the current need that exists.

The Challenge of Today

People are struggling today. The proof is in the 1.9 million visits that food banks saw in March 2023, a 32 per cent increase over last year. In addition to these visits, over 40 per cent of people in Canada are feeling financially worse off than they did a year ago; 60 per cent are saying that mental health is an issue that is not receiving the attention it deserves; and the government is failing to take timely action when people need it most.

The federal government has taken some minor steps to address the social safety net this year by making progress towards a Canada Disability Benefit, along with a commitment to a new Canada Dental Care Plan. However, it has largely failed to pass legislation that substantially addresses key drivers of poverty, in particular, housing supports and reforms to EI. This inaction earned Canada a D for legislative progress in this year’s Poverty Report Cards.

Our Recommendations:

  1. Given the potential uncertainty of the timeline for Bill C-22 (now with Royal Assent) and a possible upcoming federal election at some point over the next 12–24 months, all parties should commit to working collaboratively with whomever is in government to bring a final benefit in to place no later than early 2025, regardless of the timing of an election. It will be crucial to develop the benefit with implementation in mind to avoid any slowdown in the work needed within the public service should it be implemented during or around a federal election.
    1. The ultimate Canada Disability Benefit (CDB) design should provide adequate payments that are in parity with similar robust benefits like benefits for seniors, and ideally should provide value equal or above the MBM line.
    2. In defining the MBM line for people with disabilities, the government and Statistics Canada should study and account for the impact of inflation and higher costs of care and basic needs on people with disabilities.
  2. Since the onset of the pandemic, the federal government has provided multiple one-time top-ups to the GST tax credit and other tax-related programs either to help Canadians avoid loss of income during the pandemic or to address the subsequent affordability challenges resulting from inflation and the economic restart. The government should make a clear commitment that these supports will continue until inflation has returned to the 2 per cent
    1. Having made these payments on a one-off basis over the last four tax years, the government should assess the impact the payments have had on various demographic groups. This should inform future work on how to improve tools such as the Canada Child Benefit and Canada Workers Benefit. Finally, the findings should be used for broader objectives to make the poverty reduction progress experienced during the pandemic permanent.
  3. In the short term, allow all households with low incomes to have access to the non-cash benefits that are currently only available to those on social assistance (e.g., childcare subsidies, affordable housing supplements, drug and dental insurance).
  4. Make single adults with a low income a priority consideration in all future poverty reduction measures, including an expanded and modernized EI, to ensure that this population is no longer left behind.
    1. As part of this, the government should set a clear timetable for when it will bring forward EI modernization reforms, which have been continually promised since the 2020 Speech from the Throne.
  5. As the federal and provincial Ministers of Health move forward with shared federal health priorities, as outlined in the funding framework agreed to earlier this year, further work is required to develop new mental health measures that include a specific focus on the impact of low incomes on mental health and the acute needs of single working-age adults, people with disabilities, and people living with addictions.
  6. Ensure all federal benefits are indexed to inflation and that agreements with provincial governments explicitly forbid claw-backs of provincial social supports for new federal benefit programs.

The Building Gap

To restore the country’s housing affordability crisis, Canada needs 5.8 million homes built by 2030. [1] In other words, between 2023 and 2030, roughly 830,000 units need to be built each year in Canada. Unfortunately, so far in 2023, just over 143,000 homes have started construction [2]—just 17 per cent of what is required. Overall, the construction of housing has actually slowed down in recent years.

It is clear from these numbers that the federal government is not taking the housing affordability crisis seriously enough. This issue matters a lot to many Canadians who struggle to pay their monthly housing costs. Both homeowners and renters are struggling, but renters are in acute need of assistance.

Renters in Acute Need

Nearly 70 per cent of food bank users are renters. This tells us that individuals who are struggling to pay for the most basic needs, like food, are more likely to be renters. Statistics Canada findings show that 20 per cent of renters live in core housing need [3] compared to 5 per cent of homeowners. [4] With housing costs listed as the second most common reason for a person to visit a food bank, governments need to take a serious look at how they can help people who are struggling with housing affordability today and not just in the future.

A Dual Path Approach

While some units are being built and converted, there are still millions of people in Canada looking for affordable housing today. Right now, people need more support to help cover the cost of housing. If the government is to be successful in helping residents access affordable housing, they will need to focus on both(1) building and introducing new affordable units, and (2) helping make the existing market more affordable.

Rent Assistance

In Manitoba, the rent assist program aids 33,000 residents each year by providing funds that help bring rental costs closer to 30 per cent of income (outside core housing need). [5] The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that the added benefit allowed individuals to “focus on other aspects of their life such as furthering their education, raising and/or gaining custody of their children, and rebuilding their mental and physical health.” [6] Further, 70 per cent of the tenants surveyed noted that the benefit allowed them to buy healthier groceries. As rent is a relatively fixed expense, the benefit allowed residents to make smart planning decisions with their limited funds. [7] Robust rent assist programs, like the program offered in Manitoba, can go a long way in reducing poverty and food insecurity among all renters. A similar portable housing benefit concept has been introduced in the recent National Housing Accord report on rental affordability. [8]

Post Secondary Students and Housing

One housing trend that is quietly causing concern in many food banks across the country is the increases in visits from post-secondary students, who now represent 8 per cent of food bank visitors. While this number may seem small, it is increasing more rapidly than other demographics, and anecdotal evidence indicates that international students are the ones most likely to be in need.

According to government figures, Canada’s international student population has grown by 75 per cent in just five years. Currently, there is no requirement for any government to make post-secondary institutions build adequate housing options for the increasing numbers of students they are accepting.

With students spending much of their time studying, there is little opportunity to earn additional income. Additionally, international students are only permitted to work 20 hours a week, which greatly curtails their ability to keep up with rising costs. [9] On average, most student incomes are less than $20,000 a year. Despite this, rents are 25 per cent higher for students than for the rest of the population. [10]

Many international students are therefore struggling to find housing [11] and an overwhelming amount—75 per cent—are experiencing food insecurity. [12]

Toward a Better Future

While the high cost of housing has been a root cause of food bank use for many years, the acute urgency of the matter and the need for government intervention has never been clearer. If there is one policy area that could immediately help tens of thousands of Canadians struggling with poverty and low incomes, it is housing.

The federal government must begin working more with provincial governments to address the inadequate number of units being built. Canada will likely miss its building goal by roughly 600,000 units this year, but the need for these units will simply be “kicked down the road” to be dealt with in future years. The need is going nowhere.

In the meantime, we are asking that the government take serious urgent action on the introduction of programs to help reduce costs today.

Our Recommendations:

  1. Examine the potential for a national rent assistance program, delivered collaboratively with the provinces and territories as part of the federal-provincial housing agreements.
    In the development process, the government should consider:

    1. A model based on Manitoba’s Rent Assist program.
    2. Exploring the National Housing Accord report on affordable rentals, recommendation.
  2. The federal government should fulfill its promise to develop tools that address the costs of housing, including a review of the tax treatment of residential real estate investment trusts (REITs) and other large corporate owners.
    1. As part of this work, the government should consider options to preserve or limit tax benefits to help establish conditions that deepen affordability for those currently paying market rent and/or provide guidelines on rent increases and renovictions.
  3. Leveraging its inventory of public lands, and working in collaboration with municipalities and provincial governments, the federal government should set a target for opening up properties for the possible conversion or development of affordable housing.
    As part of this, it should consider innovative approaches such as using Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, Canada Lands Company, or similar entities, to assess the potential for a public development corporation that would enable governments to fully leverage their balance sheet, reduce the cost of construction, and in turn make housing more affordable. The government should also establish a national acquisition fund that complements the recently announced Housing Accelerator Fund to support community-targeted funding for the acquisition of affordable housing. In other words, provide capital funding (loans and grants) to non-profits so they can purchase and provide rental properties at or below the median market rent.
  4. Introduce new investments to help address an important omission of the National Housing Strategy and build supportive housing for people with mental and physical health disabilities, particularly among populations that are marginalized or living on low incomes.
  5. Work with the provinces and territories to develop targeted and coordinated tax policies to spur the development of purpose-built market rental housing and complement the recent decision to remove the GST from new rental housing construction—a policy that previous HungerCount reports had advocated for. Access to tax benefits should be conditional on clearly set national targets for affordability associated with these projects.
  6. Introduce an action plan to support students—particularly international students—who are struggling with housing and food insecurity. The plan must include:
    1. A funding stream for universities to build and develop more affordable student housing.
    2. Awarding an appropriate amount of student permits to institutions based on their ability to prove that adequate affordable housing is available to all international students.
    3. Collecting data on student housing through Statistics Canada to inform better decision making.

One of the most shocking findings in this year’s HungerCount report was that the main income source for 17 per cent of food bank users is employment income. Never before have food banks seen such a high level of need among the working population.

Worse yet, when people who are currently collecting EI are included, Canada’s labour force represents 20 per cent of food bank visitors. These people are Canada’s working poor. Individuals who, despite their best efforts to work, still come home with too little money to feed themselves and their families.

And while one in five is a striking number, the working poor actually account for 40 per cent of people living in poverty in most parts of the country. [13] More shocking, 52 per cent of food-insecure households report jobs as their main income source. [14]

Purchasing Power on the Decline

A rising cost of living is at the core of these eye-opening statistics. The cost of housing is skyrocketing (see policy section 2) and inflation is making all the other necessary costs of living unmanageable. On top of that, levels of household debt have increased substantially over the last 10 years. Altogether, this means that even if wages have gone up for many workers, their ability to pay bills and make ends meet has diminished.

The result of this reduced purchasing power is that 60 per cent of working Canadians spend all their net pay and 30 per cent spend more than they earn each month. [15]

Solutions must be introduced to increase the incomes of working people in Canada. Beyond those who work, there is another group of labour force participants who are being left behind by government inaction: those who find themselves without work due to layoffs or are in precarious or seasonal work.

Supports for Peace of Mind

In a country where working hard no longer means that you are guaranteed an adequate income, people need a social safety system that guarantees their peace of mind. In the 2018–2019 fiscal year, EI covered only 39 per cent of Canada’s unemployed workers, compared to over 80 per cent in the early 1990s. [16] Now, almost 40 per cent of households whose main source of income is EI are reporting some level of food insecurity. [17]

While the federal government has made commitments to review the current inadequate EI program, there has been no headway and the process is rolling to a slow stop. As conditions in Canada’s economy worsen, there is no time for slow, drawn-out processes. Action is needed today.

Our Recommendations:

  1. Develop a new program within EI that specifically supports older workers (aged 45–65) who lose employment at a later age and who may need specific training and education programs to help them re-enter the modern workforce.
  2. Permanently broaden the EI qualifying definition of “employment” to include self-employed and precarious work.
  3. Review and reduce the number of qualifying “hours of employment” needed (currently between 420 and 700 hours of insurable employment) to better reflect the nature of modern jobs and working situations.
    1. Include a specific stream for seasonal workers who may work as few as 12–16 weeks a year.
  4. Immediately expand the Working-While-on-Claim (WWC) provisions in EI to allow workers to retain more of their income from temporary/part-time work while on EI without losing benefits or having their income clawed back.
  5. Extend the maximum duration of EI benefits beyond 45 weeks to 52 weeks, followed by a staggered reduction in cash benefits while retaining access to non-cash EI supports (such as training and education) so that people are not forced into our broken and grossly inadequate provincial social assistance system once their EI benefits run out.
  6. Work with the provinces and territories to reduce the claw-backs and improve harmony between social assistance and EI.
  7. To better support workers who are currently employed and have a low income:
    1. Improve the Canada Workers Benefit (CWB) by increasing the maximum payout, especially for those earning below the poverty line and ensure this integrates effectively with similar provincial tax credits such as Ontario’s Low-Income Individuals and Families Tax Credit (LIFT) and others.
    2. Introduce government incentives to encourage businesses to pay living wages to all employees.

Food Banks Canada has been monitoring food insecurity and poverty in Canada’s remote and northern regions with increasing concern for many years. With worsening climate conditions—resulting in wildfires, shorter ice road seasons, and changes in animal behaviours—and rising costs in necessities like food and fuel that lead to exponentially higher costs in the North, the concern has never been greater.

For context, food insecurity rates in the territories are at a minimum of 20 per cent, and this rises to 50 per cent in Nunavut. Despite food insecurity affecting half of the people living in a territory, no alarms are sounding for the crisis that this is. Poverty rates are also deeply concerning across the North.

The Cost of Food in the North

Year over year, government officials make promises that they are working to improve situations in the North, and yet conditions continue to worsen. According to the most recent statistics (2021), a basket of food for a family of four in the North cost $420/week. [18] Compare this to the average Canadian basket of food, which cost roughly $267/week in 2021. [19]

With household food insecurity levels unacceptably high in the territories and social assistance income that has decreased in real terms, it is time for the federal government, in collaboration with the territories, to review its food security strategies in the North.

Food Banks Canada, along with many food banks in the network, are doing what they can to support struggling communities in the North, but high shipping costs are stretching already limited funding to its limit, especially with recent inflationary pressures.

Data as a Barrier

Unfortunately, a lack of data collection in the North makes it difficult to know exactly how much people may be struggling today. Much of the information collected by the Government of Canada is several years old now and does not reflect the new reality of life under inflation and economic stress. For the rest of Canada, a basket of food has gone up by $46 a week since 2021 [20] and it would not be unreasonable to expect that number to be closer to an additional $100 a week in the North.

Data collection will play a key role in making real change happen in the North. Policy solutions cannot be implemented, and their efficacy cannot be monitored, if governments are not collecting more frequent data in the region. In some sense, this is step one of the long journey to reduce food insecurity and improve the quality of life in northern and remote areas.

Beyond Food

Food is not the only challenge in the North. High food insecurity rates can be explained by consistently lower wages among those who live there, high housing and energy costs, inconsistent government funding, and an inadequate social safety net. Exacerbating these policy failures are the devastating and lasting impacts of colonialism, systemic racism, and climate change, with the latter now preventing the gathering of traditional and reliable foods. [21] The list of challenges is long, and a new approach is needed to resolve them.

Addressing food prices and implementing food-driven solutions can only do so much. The federal government must also review its entire approach to the long-term root causes of food insecurity in the North if significant progress is to be achieved.

Our Recommendations:

  1. Since 2015 the government has twice revised the Northern Residents Deduction (NRD) to assist people in the North with the high cost of living. While this is a welcome step, as a tax deduction it is most beneficial to those with higher incomes. The federal government should examine options for how the NRD can be transformed into a progressive and refundable design. This would better help those in need and reduce poverty in areas where it is highest, while maintaining a basic degree of assistance for all Northerners in recognition of the differential cost of living. If developed properly, the new and improved NRD could be the basis for a regional minimum income floor.
  2. In collaboration with Indigenous communities and organizations, the government must continue to review Nutrition North Canada to determine why the program is only minimally achieving its objectives of reducing the cost of food in the North and work toward exploring innovative ways the program can better support communities.
  3. Working in partnership with local groups, create a Canada-wide Northern development and revitalization plan that is focused on the research and development of regional programs that aim to train workers and grow commerce in strategic economic sectors like tourism, natural resources, and local/regional business.
    1. As part of this plan, work with territorial and Indigenous governments to develop a long-term community infrastructure vision that will close gaps in access to housing, food production, and broadband Internet to ensure a degree of parity with the standard of living that Canadians in the south enjoy.
  4. Develop funding for a national program of community-based representatives whose focus is on connecting their communities to funds and resources that are available to communities in the North, yet too often go unused for lack of awareness. These representatives will provide an opportunity for knowledge sharing between communities across the North.
  5. As part of the federal government’s Critical Minerals Strategy, there must be a clear focus on the development of community infrastructure in northern communities such as housing, educational institutions, and broadband Internet; the localization of economic and community benefits so that local residents benefit from these projects; and the development of incentives and strategies to retain capital in the North and reduce the reliance on temporary workers.
  6. Offer additional training for remote work skills and funding for the procurement of work-from-home supplies.

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[1] 2023_National_Housing_Accord.pdf (nationbuilder.com)

[2] www03.cmhc-schl.gc.ca/hmip-pimh/en#Profile/1/1/Canada (august 2023)

[3] Households in core housing need live in an unsuitable, inadequate or unaffordable dwelling and cannot afford alternative housing in their community.

[4] https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/11-627-m/11-627-m2022056-eng.htm

[5] Cooper, S., Hajer, J., & Plaut, S. Assisting renters: Manitoba’s Rent Assist in the context of Canada’s National Housing Strategy. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Manitoba Office. https://eppdscrmssa01.blob.core.windows.net/cmhcprodcontainer/sf/project/archive/publications/nhs/research_and_planning_fund_program/assisting-renters.pdf

[6] ibid

[7] ibid

[8] 2023_National_Housing_Accord.pdf (nationbuilder.com)

[9] https://www.canada.ca/en/immigration-refugees-citizenship/services/study-canada/work/work-off-campus.html

[10] Utile. (n.d.). Data and research. https://www.utile.org/en/data-and-research

[11] https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/international-students-affected-by-housing-crisis-1.6940668

[12] https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5fa8521696a5fd2ab92d32e6/t/6318b24f068ccf1571675884/1662562897883/2021+National+Student+Food+Insecurity+Report+-3.pdf

[13] Stapleton, J. (2019). The working poor in the Toronto region – A closer look at the increasing numbers. Metcalf Foundation. https://metcalffoundation.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Working-Poor-2019-NEW.pdf

[14] Tarasuk, V., Li, T., & Fafard St-Germain, A. A. (2022). Household food insecurity in Canada, 2021. PROOF. https://proof.utoronto.ca/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/Household-Food-Insecurity-in-Canada-2021-PROOF.pdf

[15] Half of Canadians ‘overwhelmed’ by debt: Report | HRD Canada (hcamag.com)

[16] Busby, C., & Gray, D. (2021, March 10). A new voluntary EI program would bring more workers under safety net. Policy Options Politiques. https://policyoptions.irpp.org/magazines/march-2021/a-new-voluntary-ei-program-would-bring-more-workers-under-safety-net/

[17] Tarasuk, V., Li, T., & Fafard St-Germain, A. A. (2022). Household food insecurity in Canada, 2021. PROOF. https://proof.utoronto.ca/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/Household-Food-Insecurity-in-Canada-2021-PROOF.pdf

[18] Cost of the Revised Northern Food Basket in 2020-2021 (nutritionnorthcanada.gc.ca)

[19] Canada’s Food Price Report 2021 – Agri‑Food Analytics Lab – Dalhousie University

[20] Canada’s Food Price Report 2023_Digital.pdf (dal.ca)

[21] Bratina, B. Food security in northern and isolated communities: Ensuring equitable access to adequate and healthy food for all report of the Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs. House of Commons. https://www.ourcommons.ca/Content/Committee/432/INAN/Reports/RP11420916/inanrp10/inanrp10-e.pdf