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People are going without food in order to afford rent: Ottawa Food Bank CEO

Rachael Wilson said people are choosing to miss meals in order to be able to afford the other bills that they have.
2021-10-31 ottawa food bank
Ottawa Food Bank trolly. (Photo/Ottawa Food Bank Facebook)

As a new report shows a greater number of Ontario residents have been visiting food banks, the CEO of the Ottawa Food Bank is highlighting the root causes of food insecurity.

The report by Feed Ontario, a collective of 1,200 direct and affiliate food banks and other organizations that work to address food insecurity, shows Ontario residents have been visiting food banks in greater numbers and more often over the last six years.

Ottawa Food Bank chief executive officer (CEO) Rachael Wilson told Wake Up With Rob Snow on Tuesday, Nov. 29, a lack of income and the rising cost of living are the driving forces behind the trend. 

"We know that more food does not solve the issue of food insecurity," Wilson said. "We have been around for 40 years and have been increasing the amount of food that we deliver to the community year-over-year, but we know that does not solve the issue. The issue is a lack of income, so we're looking at poverty being the underlying issue, affordable housing, jobs not being available."

Wilson also said it's a problem made worse by a lack of social assistance. 

"We know, certainly during the pandemic, we saw the numbers increasing for obvious reasons and now we're seeing that increase really driven by the cost of living," Wilson said. "It's just becoming unaffordable for people living in cities like Ottawa because of unaffordable housing, jobs not keeping pace, and certainly, we know that social assistance rates haven't kept pace either."

With the cost of living continuing to rise, Wilson said people are forced to choose between a place to call home and a meal on the table. 

"We know that many people who access a food bank are spending more than the recommended 30 per cent of their income on housing. We're generally seeing people who spend higher than 50 per cent of their income on housing. You can't miss a rent payment, you can't miss a utility payment without dire consequences," Wilson said. "Food is the first thing people will go without. So, they will miss a meal in order to be able to afford the other bills that they have. If there is deeply affordable housing, that has a direct impact on people's ability to afford healthy and nutritious food and regular meals."

Wilson also said the government needs to take action especially when it comes to employment, as low paying jobs are a critical issue. 

"That would be things like a gig-economy or service jobs that only pay minimum wage," Wilson said. "We know living here in Ottawa, minimum wage really is not a living wage. A living wage is actually $4.60 more at $19.60, so if you are only working part-time at minimum wage, if you're underemployed, then you're really not going to be able to afford the rent and the bills that you have."

Wilson also expanded on social assistance rates and how poorly they have kept up with the cost of living, saying the recent five per cent increase didn't even keep pace with the cost of living prior to the inflation we are currently seeing.

"We need a dramatic increase in social assistance rates. Sixty per cent of the people who access a food bank here in Ottawa are on some form of social assistance, so if they were receiving more funds, they would not be needing to turn to a food bank often. We're talking about a deep divide between what they receive from social assistance and even the basic cost of rent here in Ottawa. It leaves little-to-nothing left over at the end of the month."

Listen to the full interview with CEO Rachael Wilson below: 

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