Maria, a 38-year-old single mother of two boys, aged 14 and 8, graduated from university in the Philippines and did well as a dental hygienist there. The family recently immigrated to Canada and settled in Toronto’s Scarborough area. Maria needs to re-train as a hygienist as her credentials are not recognized in Canada. Having spent all her savings on tuition, she is forced to make regular visits to a food bank to keep hunger at bay.
Like Maria, Ali and Sabrina from the Middle East are not your stereotypical users of food banks. Newcomers living in the Peel region of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), the couple first visited the food bank not for food but to look for jobs in the community centre where it is located. Both have Masters Degrees from their home country, Ali in Biochemistry and Sabrina in Agronomy. Fluent in English, they are volunteering to get Canadian work experience. Sabrina says the effect of hunger is devastating on her family. “We are educated and just want any kind of job to survive.” They have three children, daughters 11 and 9 and an 8-year-old son.
Both these families are a snapshot of new immigrants who now account for one in 10 people using food banks in Canada along with a similar number of aboriginals. While the March 2013 figures for people using food banks show a drop of 4.5 per cent from 2012, it fails to become a good news story as use remains 23 per cent higher than in 2008, before the recession began.
With far too many Canadians, new and old, struggling to put food on the table despite the apparent economic recovery, hunger has been called the epicenter of the country’s most pressing issues and flagged by the UN as unacceptable. The HungerCount 2013 report released on Tuesday by Food Banks Canada is the latest to highlight the scourge.
“The report comes as no surprise to me as the labour market, especially for new immigrants has become very tight and they have to depend on precarious jobs for mere survival,” said Dr. Usha George, Professor and Dean, Faculty of Community Services at Ryerson University in Toronto.
New immigrants are also more vulnerable to the vagaries of the job market as they tend to congregate on cities like Toronto that are becoming increasingly expensive, Dr. George said. “The gap between income and expenses is tremendous and it is growing.”
Sensitive economic indicator
A 2013 profile of hunger in the GTA put out by the Daily Bread Food Bank said visits to food banks might be a more sensitive indicator than unemployment rates of how the economy is doing. For most months following April 2012, Daily Bread member agencies saw a reduction in client visits from over the previous year. It preceded a downward trend in unemployment rates in Toronto that began in the fourth quarter of 2012.
Food-bank statistics have become a key indicator of poverty in Canada as national figures do not exist for social assistance rates, the number of people whose jobless benefits end before they find work or the waiting list for affordable housing.
While people accessing food banks across the GTA are reflective of Toronto’s diversity, there are indications of who might be more affected by poverty. Compared to five years ago, the clients are getting older, more highly educated, and more likely to be born outside of Canada.
The Daily Bread Food Bank profile says newcomers who have been in the country for five years or less represent twice the proportion than the general GTA population. This difference is even larger in the inner suburbs where close to 40 per cent of the newcomer population coming to food banks have been in the country for five years or less. Those numbers include highly educated, but underemployed, newcomer families with children living in apartments that are barely affordable.
“The people who utilize our services would challenge any typical notion of a food bank client you may have. We have medical doctors, lawyers, doctorates coming to us because of the systemic discrimination they face in the employment market,” said Daven Seebarran, Executive Director of Sikhs Serving Canada, a charity that runs the Seva Food Bank in the Mississauga region of the GTA.
Anecdotal evidences about increasing numbers of newcomers using food banks are many. “The numbers seem to have doubled over the years,” said Qamer Phirzada, the food bank manager of the Muslim Welfare Centre in Toronto’s Scarborough area. While her centre mainly caters to Muslims seeking Halal food, people from other cultures too use its services. “We try our best to put our clients at ease about their predicament,” said Ms. Phirzada.
Most food banks in the GTA are increasingly trying to make sure that they serve culturally appropriate food to their client. “One of the main tenets we focus on is to provide culture-appropriate food. This stems from research that says food from the home culture is essential for newcomers at a time of great stress,” said Mr. Seebarran. “We try to accommodate our clients’ needs and make their experience at the food bank as pleasant as possible. We are dealing with a racialized populace that needs to be handled with sensitivity to make the whole exercise of giving meaningful.”
Like the Muslim Welfare Centre, Seva too serves a varied clientele and has seen an increase in the number of new immigrants using its services. “We are expanding to Malton area of Mississauga which again is a racialized community with the highest rate of unemployment in the region and the lowest rate of household income. Our new branch is really, really essential for the community,” said Mr. Seebarran.
Ryerson’s Dr. George said new immigrants are finding the going tough because working is no longer a safeguard against poverty due to lack of full-time jobs and the trend towards more part-time or seasonal job opportunities. The survey report on hunger in the GTA indicated that 35 per cent of food bank clients who have been on welfare have cycled on and of it two or more times, illustrating employment precariousness. One respondent to the survey said, “I am not the kind of person to go out and ask people or neighbours for food, money, or help. Without it (food banks), I often would not eat.”
Need to focus on root causes
However, food banks may be compounding the very problems they seem to be solving, according to Nick Saul, president and CEO of Community Food Centres Canada. In an article in The Walrus , Mr. Saul says food banks, “with all of their collecting and sorting and distributing and thanking, are meeting the needs of everyone except the people they were set up to help: the poor and hungry.”
“This emergency handout approach divides us as citizens, breaking down our society into us and them, givers and takers… We need to stop cheering on an approach that has already failed, and instead focus on the root of the problem: people are hungry because they are poor.”
A concern that was shared by Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, during his contentious visit to the country last year. Calling for a national food strategy, the UN official said a large number of Canadians are too poor to afford adequate diets, “800,000 households are food insecure… This is a country that is rich, but that fails to adapt the levels of social assistance benefits and its minimum wage to the rising costs of basic necessities, including food and housing. Food banks that depend on charity are not a solution: they are a symptom of failing social safety nets that the Government must address.”
Another recent report by researchers at the University of Toronto said 3.9 million Canadians struggled to afford enough food in 2011, an increase of close to half a million compared with 2008. Of those that went hungry, 1.1 million were children.
“The impact of this situation on children, families, communities, the health care system and our economy cannot be overstated,” said Dr. Valerie Tarasuk, a nutritional sciences professor at U of T’s Faculty of Medicine and principal investigator for PROOF, an international team of researchers committed to the reduction of household food insecurity.
“The problem is not under control and more effective responses are urgently needed,” Tarasuk said. “The cost of inaction is simply too high.” – New Canadian Media
Maria, Ali and Sabrina mentioned in the article are fictional profiles based on composite statistics from real client stories from the Daily Bread Food Bank’s 2013 report on hunger in the GTA
Ranjit is a Toronto-based writer with interest in Canadian civic affairs, immigration, the environment and motoring. Maytree and Al Jazzera English alumnus.