The first food bank in Canada opened in 1981 in Edmonton during a recession caused by a collapse in oil prices. Forty years later, food banks are still widely used and there continues to be a need for them across Canada, driven by inadequate income and rising prices for housing, food and other necessities. In Hunger Count 2021, Food Banks Canada reports that in March of 2021, our 2,332 food banks had 1,303,997 visitors of whom one-third were children. This was an increase of 20 per cent since March 2019. Food bank use spikes in December – in Hamilton the number of clients commonly doubles at this time of the year.

Food insecurity has serious consequences. Adults in food-insecure households have poorer mental and physical health, greater stress and more chronic conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and mood and anxiety disorders. Household food insecurity also has insidious effects on the health and development of young children, including increased hospitalizations, poor health, iron deficiency, developmental risk and behaviour problems, anxiety, depression and attention deficit disorder. These concerns early in life increase children’s risk of poor school readiness, poor school performance and subsequent health disparities and poverty.

Canada lacks information about who uses food banks. Hamilton Food Share (HFS) – a network of all major food banks in Hamilton that supports more than 5,000 different households and 12,000 different individuals monthly – started to collect detailed information about food bank users in May 2014. Researchers at the Secure Empirical Analysis Lab at McMaster University used the HFS data for 2015 through 2018 and 2016 census data on low-income families in Hamilton to answer a series of questions about food bank usage. This is the most detailed report in Canada.

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The study tried to provide answers to the following questions: Which low-income households visit food banks? What proportion of food-bank users is regular clients and what proportion use this service only briefly? What proportion of the low-income population use food banks? How does the income of food bank households compare with low-income households that do not use food banks? Is the physical location of food banks a challenge for the low-income population?

Evidence-based answers to these questions are important for food bank administrators, charitable donors and policy-makers. Food bank administrators must decide what food to stock, where to locate and what non-food services to offer (for example, language translation services). Donors want to know how crucial food banks are for the low-income population. Public policy analysts must determine how reliant those receiving Ontario Works (social assistance) and the Ontario Disability Support Program funding are on food banks and what the policy response should be to this challenge.

The results

Among all households who use food banks in the Hamilton area, almost one-half are single persons living alone (figure 1). Almost one-quarter are single parents with children (under age 25), 18 per cent are couples with children, and 7 per cent are couples without children. In sum, a slight majority of households who use food banks have no children. The key difference between the HFS and census households is that 42 per cent of the former have children under 25 whereas this is true of only 30 per cent of households in the census low-income population.

What proportion of low-income households in Hamilton use a local food bank? Around one-third of low-income households use local food banks, but there are major differences by household type (figure 2). Forty-seven per cent of low-income single parents and 44 per cent of couples with children are food bank users. Only 20 per cent of couples without children and 30 per cent of singles in the low-income population use food banks.

Singles represent the largest number of food bank households but, compared to the low-income population as a whole, households with children, especially single mothers, disproportionately use food banks.

If we adjust household income to take into account inflation and the number (and age) of persons in the household, we see that couples without children have the highest adjusted income (figure 3). Singles have the lowest incomes, which reflects their household status and age. Regardless of family size, mean income per person is about 50 per cent lower in food-bank households of all types than in the average low-income family. In other words, food banks not only serve low-income households, but they also serve those most in need of such assistance.

Two-thirds of food bank households most often visit a food bank other than the one that is physically nearest. Reasons for this include hours of operation and food offerings. This means that the physical location of food banks does not play an important role in determining which low-income households use food banks.

Most importantly, our data show that food banks very clearly serve those households in the low-income population that have more members to feed and less income with which to feed them. In other words, they help the poorest of the poor.

Food bank use and income-support programs

Compared to the average low-income household, food bank users rely more heavily on government income supports, especially Ontario Disability Support Payments and Ontario Works, and less heavily on employment income. One reason could be the low amount of government supports relative to the cost of people’s most basic needs, such as shelter and food.

In fact, the key variable associated with food bank use is household income. Regardless of whether we adjust for household size, gross income is about 50 per cent lower in food-bank households of all types than in the average low-income family. This calls into question the size and design of income-support programs that target low-income populations and how effective they are at preventing the need for food bank use or in helping people transition out of poverty.

Food banks in Canada have existed for four decades and there seems to be no sign that the need for them has slowed. A better understanding of food bank use will help fill gaps in Canada’s social safety net and make evidence-informed decisions on how to incorporate food banks in policy planning.

Arthur Sweetman, a professor of economics at McMaster University, contributed to this article.

Drop by for a webinar on food bank use on Monday, December 13, 2021 at 1 p.m. It’s being held by the Institute for Research on Public Policy. Get details and register here.

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Martin Dooley
Martin Dooley is professor emeritus of economics at McMaster University.
Ruby Bokma
Ruby Bokma is a graduate student at the University of Toronto.
Melanie Yin
Melanie Yin is a graduate student in economics at Queen’s University.

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