This month, nearly 900,000 Canadians will wonder where their next meal will come from. According to the HungerCount 2014 report from Food Banks Canada and the Ontario Association of Food Banks (OAFB) 2014 Hunger Report, there has been a 25 per cent increase in food bank usage since 2008, with the most frequent users cited as women over 18, children, Aboriginal people, single parent families, rental tenants, and individuals requiring social assistance.
Among the fastest growing demographics of food bank users are post-secondary students — particularly those living in rural communities.
Estimates reported by the OAFB show that 770,000 Ontarians access food banks annually, eight per cent of which include senior citizens and students.
“Food bank use among postsecondary students in many ways reflects the profound changes that are taking place within Canada’s labour market related to the rise of precarious employment,” says Peggy Sattler, member of provincial parliament for London West and Ontario NDP critic for training, colleges, and universities.
“There are estimates that precarious work now represents as much as one-third of all employment in Canada, leaving many postsecondary graduates without access to the job security, wage security and benefits provided by regular, full-time employment, making them vulnerable to food insecurity and potential reliance on emergency food assistance for many years to come,” Sattler adds.
The HungerCount report also cites the “low benefit levels provided by provincial welfare programs” as being particularly “unkind to people with low levels of education.”
While a person is not considered to be a member of the “working poor” if they are a student, the OAFB report found that over 50 per cent of those classified as the working poor hold a post-secondary education.
An individual or family that experiences income-related food insecurity faces barriers that prevent access to nutritious or affordable food. Barriers as a result of low income may include the stigma associated with receiving government assistance, distance or lack of transportation to a food bank facility, inefficient intake procedures, or conflicting hours of service.
Skipping meals or sacrificing other basic necessities in order to feed themselves and their families is a typical course of action for the unemployed or working poor.
“Since the recession, food bank use increased dramatically from 314,000 in 2008 to levels that have not dipped below 370,000 in recent years,” said Amanda King, OAFB manager of membership & communications in a press release, adding, “Unstable employment conditions, unsustainable wages and rising costs on essentials like food, transportation, hydro and gas are forcing a growing number of Ontarians to have to choose between paying their bills or putting food on the table.”
Food banks have also been cropping up at many post-secondary institutions in order to meet growing student demand.
The OAFB lists limited incomes, rising food prices, and lack of affordable housing as reasons for the increasing numbers of students in need of social assistance.
A rapid increase in tuition rates over the past several years is cited as the primary catalyst for food insecurity among post-secondary students.
Tuition in Ontario has increased nearly 40 per cent in the last seven years.
“Ontario students are paying the highest tuition fees in Canada and graduating with huge debt loads, so the first thing the Ontario government should do is to restructure higher education funding in order to reduce tuition fees,” says Sattler, adding: “There is a clear public benefit to having a well-educated population, but the costs of higher education are being borne more and more by individuals in the form of tuition rather than the public in the form of tax dollars.”
Belinda Bien, policy and communications officer for the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, says that helping Ontario students with their costs is part of the government’s plan to make post-secondary education accessible for everyone.
“Our government is dedicated to ensuring that postsecondary education remains accessible and affordable for all Ontarians, which is why Ontario’s Tuition Fee Framework for 2013-14 through 2016-17, limits the overall institutional average tuition fee increase to a maximum of 3%, adjusted for enrolment,” says Bien.
In December, the provincial government acted to increase the amount of financial aid available to post-secondary students and offered a lifeline for student loan defaulters.
Food Banks Canada, an organization of Canadian food banks, criticizes the federal, provincial, and municipal governments for not doing enough to prevent Canadians from falling into a poverty trap.
“With rising rental prices, tuition fees, food prices, and a limited income, it is no wonder that students have to make compromises when it comes to food in order to have a place to live,” the Hunger Report says.
The Hunger Report claims that modern social policy is based on the assumption that the more the government gives, the more people will take.
“Every dollar spent to improve income security for people on social assistance is invested back into the economy in the form of increased consumer spending. People on social assistance don’t sit on the income they receive, they pump it right back into the economy,” says Sattler.
The U of T Food and Clothing Bank provides resources to students in need.