Ontario seniors are increasingly relying on food banks at alarming rates—is the pandemic to blame?

By: Kennedy Kao

In 2017, Ontario food banks reported a 10% increase in seniors using their facilities. In 2021, the same food banks welcomed an increase of 36% in seniors, demonstrating a provincial-wide trend of seniors looking for affordable food options.

Why are Seniors Relying on Food Banks? 

Feed Ontario, an organization dedicated to ending hunger in Ontario, cites unaffordable living and housing costs as the main reason for this increase. 

As many seniors rely on fixed incomes, the ability to allocate their funds evenly becomes limited. When choosing between rent, utilities, and food, it is usually food that gets sacrificed. From the Daily Bread Food Bank director and researcher Richard Matern: “[Rent] is such an intense pressure. People can’t skip paying rent. It’s a concrete expense. Food is usually the first thing to be sacrificed so it is by far the biggest driver of food bank use.” 

 Feed Ontario’s 2021 Report shows how Ontario seniors couldn’t apply for the Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB), a resource many could have used to bring in consistent food supplies. Even though only less than 1% of CERB applicants entered Ontario Food Banks, the 36% increase in seniors entering food banks came into view.  

Virginia Harrie, an organizer of an Ontario-based food bank that caters to seniors, said in April last year: “Food has gone way up but the money hasn’t. So now the desperation is even more.” 

Nearly 600,000 people accessed Ontario food banks in 2021, an alarming 10% increase from 2020. While the overall reliance on food banks needs to be addressed, it is clear that our seniors are undergoing a critical hunger crisis. 

“Senior citizens continue to be one of the fastest-growing population groups that are turning to food banks for support. Although people over 65 still represent a relatively small proportion of all food bank visitors…the proportion of senior citizens accessing food banks has increased 36 percent over the last year, and 64 percent since 2008.” 

— Feed Ontario’s 2021 Report

Adding to this concern is the heightened vulnerability of seniors during COVID-19. With older adults being more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19, there has been less incentive for seniors to leave their households. Include the lack of digital literacy and technological knowledge that informs someone about food assistance and it is no surprise to find a growing trend of food bank-reliant seniors. 

Other factors that point to the increasing rate of seniors in food banks are the instability of government and employer financial assistance programs and the challenges of accumulating savings over time. Both these factors are caused by the unaffordable living rates in Ontario that seem to skyrocket at every glance. 

Reversing the Trend of Food Bank Usage for Seniors

There have been calls for the Ontario government to make housing and necessities affordable, which would be the best way to help reverse the trend of food bank use. 

Another recommendation is to have someone knowledgeable about current market prices to help budget a senior’s financial plan. Seniors can be unaware of the price changes that can happen over time, hindering their ability to plan their finances accordingly.

Feed Ontario urges the Ontario Government to improve social assistance programs, like Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program. Both programs provide funds that are far below the level of what is affordable to live healthily in Ontario—recipients only receive $470 to $1,074 per month. 

Adjusting social programs to meet current living costs, making eligibility criteria more straightforward, and forgoing financial penalties are some of Feed Ontario’s recommendations regarding reconstructing our social assistance systems. 

We need to Prevent our Seniors from Relying on Food Banks

Donating time and food to food banks temporarily solves a long-term problem. 

Using the Food Banks Canada Search Map, you can find your local food bank to support. 

Checking on our local seniors and ensuring they have enough to eat goes a long way. Food assistance programs like Meals on Wheels and The Good Food Box provide affordable meal plans that are delivered right to a senior’s doorstep. 
Organizations like Feed Ontario, Food Banks Canada, and Food Secure Canada give resources and information about the uptick in seniors relying on food banks, not to mention the programs that fight to end hunger and poverty in Ontario. Supporting these organizations can be a big help.