I have now completed my two week social assistance diet, where I spent $47.60 a week on groceries and toiletries to call on the Ontario government to double social assistance rates.
I still had some potatoes, rice and beans left over from my first week, so in my second week, I spent money on milk, eggs, bread, cheese, one onion, butter, frozen peas, hot sauce, one kit kat, and coffee, leaving me with $1.90. I spent a lot of time planning, carefully shopping and preparing my dull, bland meals. It was a humbling and eye-opening experience.
During my second week, I visited the Avenue Road Food Bank at the Church of Messiah at 240 Avenue Road to better understand how inflation and the rising cost of food is impacting our neighborhoods. This food bank is like a grocery store, where people can choose from the fruit, vegetables, and groceries they want to take. You can find out more and give to the Avenue Road Food Bank here.
I spoke to Bob Mandel, one of the co-founders of the Food Bank. Bob visited food banks 18 years ago because he had lost his job and had to feed his kid. Having got his life back in order, he now helps others.
Bob told me the number of people who are visiting the food bank has gone up by 30% in six weeks, due to the rising cost of food and the arrival of people from Ukraine.
“People from across Toronto, from as far as Mississauga, start queuing at 12pm in rain, heat or snow, three hours before the food bank opens its doors at 3pm,” he said.
“I’ve never seen a need like this. We used to have food left over to donate to kitchens, now we have none,” he said.
Many people who visit food banks are on social assistance. They have no choice. An Ontarian receives $1227 a month if they are living on Ontario Disability Support Payments, and $773 a month if they are on Ontario Works. It costs this much to pay for a basement apartment in Toronto, leaving you with next to nothing left over for food.
Many kind Ontarians took the time to describe their meager food budget to me, and how they lived on less than we allocated ourselves. We based our budget on the amount the Harris government recommended people spend on food 27 years ago, after they cut social assistance rates by 21.6 percent. The cost of living, especially rent, has skyrocketed.
Residents also told me that as the weeks go by, it gets harder and harder to live on social assistance as the surprise costs mount, from transit costs to medical expenses to an unwanted eviction and move. It’s an impossible and stressful way to live.
There is ample evidence to demonstrate that providing people with financial support to get them out of poverty is good for everyone. Poverty is expensive for any government. Poor people are more likely to get sick, struggle with mental health, interact with the police, end up in the emergency room or hospital, find themselves homeless, or unable to work. People who are provided with support are far more likely to get their lives in order, care for their children, get a job, pay taxes, and contribute.
My visits to food banks this week also drummed home the message that alleviating poverty is also about raising the minimum wage. In 2022, working people are waiting in food bank lines, while supermarket chain employers, like Loblaws for example, are seeing their profits rise by up to 40%.
Instead of making the wage and wealth gap between the rich and poor worse, we need a government that makes our economy more fair. That will involve raising the minimum wage to $20 an hour, doubling social assistance rates, and raising taxes on the wealthiest among us. It also means stabilizing expenses, especially the high cost of rent, by bringing in stronger rent control.