“It’s déjà vu all over again”

The famous quip by baseball legend Yogi Berra could easily be applied to recent attempts to reform social assistance here in Ontario.

On Thursday, Hamilton East — Stoney Creek MPP Paul Miller will present a bill for second reading in the Ontario Legislature: Bill 6 could help fix a broken social assistance system that currently leaves recipients living in dire poverty. At the heart of the legislative initiative is an attempt to restore dignity and opportunity for 900,000 social assistance recipients in this province who often become trapped in the cycle of deep poverty.

Approximately one in nine households under the purview of the Simcoe-Muskoka District Health Unit have food security concerns.

The problem of easily obtaining and affording safe, healthy and familiar food for about 11% of households, combined with only a quarter of those food insecure houses accessing local food banks, has the health unit looking at other options.

“The root of household food insecurity is poverty,” said Jane Shrestha, a registered dietitian working on the food security issue for the health unit. “Solutions that have an impact on the incomes of folks who are struggling to put food on the table are likely to be the most effective solutions we have available.”

In the Waspy Toronto the Good I grew up in, everyone was proud to look down their noses at the nation to our south and proclaim, “we do not have the division between haves and have-nots that they have down there.”

Every September since 1999, Toronto’s public health department reminds the city that this old smugness, and the reality it spoke to, have largely disappeared.

The department issues a report identifying the cost of a frugal basket of nutritious food for a family of four, and assesses what that means for people on low incomes.

This year’s report, which will be presented to the Board of Health on September 30, says the weekly cost of such a basket is $198.34, up 1.4 per cent from last year and up 20.1 per cent since 2009.

The Coe Hill food bank is open three Mondays a month. It serves twelve families. The volunteer who runs the food bank told us that some people who come to the food bank can’t even afford the 25 or 50 cents for clothing that the local thrift shop charges. So she has started to provide free clothing at the food bank. The food bank is also looking at starting a ‘wood share’ program – so people can get free wood to heat their homes.

Pat, a food bank volunteer tells us of a man who walks 10 miles to Coe Hill in order to receive ‘a little bag of food’. This man could also go to the food bank in Bancroft with public transit.

Public transit for people in Coe Hill is one bus to Bancroft every second Friday at 8:00 am. The return trip from Bancroft leaves at noon the same day. It’s about a half hour ride each way – so a person without a car has three hours in Bancroft every two weeks to go to the food bank, or do grocery shopping, keep appointments and maybe visit family or friends. If this same man went to the food bank in Bancroft he would have an additional ten mile walk back to his home after the bus drops him off in Coe Hill.

Bill 6 is a private member’s bill with the goal of establishing social assistance rates that fit with the cost of living in different Ontario communities. People who depend on Ontario Works or the Ontario Disability Support Program have been losing their buying power since 1995, when the Ontario government cut payments by 21.6 per cent for all recipients.

Since the cut, recipients have been on a downward slide into deep poverty. Despite an annual increase of one per cent to the rates, the inflation of food and accommodation prices far outstrips the increase. This is evident from the annual government-mandated surveys — the Nutritious Food Basket (NFB) reports that compare individual and family incomes to food and accommodation costs in municipalities across Ontario.

The worst example of people being left behind are unattached recipients of Ontario Works: at present they receive only $681 per month, and the NFB report for 2015 shows them to be $121 short per month for nutritious food after rent for an average bachelor apartment. This, despite a 2012 recommendation by the Social Assistance Review Commission for an immediate $100 raise which would have brought them to $700 four years ago.

Bev Gateman works out of what used to be a supply closet at the local high school.

From her cramped office she, alongside an army of volunteers, is responsible for feeding 12,000 students a day through 73 school breakfast programs under the provincial banner, Ontario Student Nutrition Program.

The program offers nutritional meals developed to fit the needs of individual schools and receives about 14 cents per student, per day.

“We do as much as we can, but we just don’t have enough money. I’m the only paid person in the whole of Grey-Bruce and everybody else volunteers their time,” Gateman said.

The face of hunger in Toronto is growing older.

Adults over age 45 are the fastest growing group of food bank users in the city, making up more than one-third of 905,970 visits in 2015-16, according to the Daily Bread Food Bank.

A decade ago, older adults made up just over one-quarter of food bank users, but today they account for 35 per cent of those relying on free food hampers.

Meanwhile, the opposite has happened for children under 18, who represented 34 per cent of food bank clients in 2006. That number has fallen to 29 per cent this year, says Who’s Hungry, the food bank’s annual report.

“One of the biggest demographic shifts observed in those accessing food banks in Toronto is the reversal of age groups at opposite ends of the age spectrum,” says the report being released today.