Percentage of children ages 0-17 living under low-income measure after-tax in each of Toronto’s 140 neighbourhoods
Six years ago this spring, I was challenged by low-income people in my community to live for one week on a “food bank diet” to better understand the stress experienced by so many on social assistance who have to make the choice between food and rent each month. The affect on me and my family was profound.
But while that publicity stunt helped raise awareness about hunger in our city, little has improved since. In fact, our local food banks are busier than ever.
More than 57 per cent of the 900,000 people in Ontario who rely on Ontario Works or Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) benefits report using food banks in 2012. And the latest research by the University of Toronto shows that one in eight households in Toronto experiences food insecurity.
The City of Toronto has embarked on an ambitious poverty reduction strategy. There are dozens of recommendations, most designed for what the city itself can do, and a few ideas on what other levels of government should do. One recommendation is for the provincial government to raise social assistance rates. Now is as good a time as any.
The fact that so many of our neighbours and our children’s classmates are living in poverty is not only an ethical crisis for our city, it is a serious public health issue.
Every year public health units across the province publish a report called the Cost of the Nutritious Food Basket that measures the minimum cost of healthy eating. And every year we see that this very modest estimate of what it costs to feed a family a healthy diet based on the Canadian Food Guide is out of reach for people on social assistance.
Our city's budgets that include food, like the student nutrition program, are adjusted every year by the rate at which food costs increase. This is the fair and just approach designed to ensure that the city budget reflects the real increases in the cost of living.
But anyone unlucky enough to fall through the cracks in these precarious economic times will find that social assistance programs in Ontario are grossly inadequate to meet their basic needs. After years of provincial cuts and austerity, our social assistance programs provide up to 55 per cent less today than they did 20 years ago.
Last week, the Ontario NDP introduced a proposal to establish an independent, expert panel to gather evidence and recommend social assistance rates that reflect the real costs of living. Such a panel can independently review housing, food and other costs, and make recommendations to the provincial budget process.
We know that there are huge costs to treat to illness related to poverty. It only makes sense to make the necessary investments that will keep people healthy.
Joe Mihevc is the chair of Toronto Board of Health.