6 groups being failed by Canada’s broken social safety net

Food Banks Canada conducts the annual HungerCount survey to provide a point-in-time snapshot of food bank use nationwide and who is struggling the most. It is the only research study encompassing the country’s 4,750+ food banks and community organizations, within and outside of the Food Banks Canada network. 

This year, the HungerCount 2023 report shows the devastating impact of rapid inflation and inadequate social supports on poverty, food insecurity and hunger in Canada.  

The milestone report found that food bank use rose to the highest levels in Canadian history in 2023, with almost two million visits in one month alone

The time to rebuild our outdated and broken social safety net is long overdue.  

“Governments at all levels must respond,” says Kirstin Beardsley, Chief Executive Officer, Food Banks Canada. “By focusing on urgent affordability issues and fixing our broken social safety net, a better path forward is possible – a Canada where no one goes hungry.”  

Canadians have watched as government-provided social supports have eroded over the last several decades. What’s left is an income floor with massive holes and inadequate foundations.  

It’s time for governments to react appropriately to the severity of the housing crisis and take bold action toward introducing new supports, especially for people from groups at particular risk for needing to rely on a food bank

1. Single people 

Single-person households without children remain the most common household type accessing food banks in Canada.  

Single/unattached working-age adults are a group of individuals whom Food Banks Canada has been concerned about for many years. Now representing 44 per cent of food bank users, they are one of the largest subsets of people visiting the food bank due to a lack of government supports for people outside of families or who are below the age of 65. In 2021, over one fifth (22%) of individuals in the general population who live alone were living below the official poverty line, compared to 4.4 per cent for people in families. With fewer income support options aside from provincial social assistance, working-age single adults falling on difficult times often have no choice but to rely on food banks because social assistance rates are so low. 

2. People receiving social assistance 

The most common income source for food bank clients is provincial social assistance. 

The main source of income for 42.4 per cent of food bank clients is provincial social assistance, which includes both the general welfare and provincial disability support income streams. Provincial social assistance rates are so low that all household types receiving social assistance live below the official poverty line in almost every province and territory. In many cases, the real dollar value of these rates has barely risen compared to 30 years ago — and in some cases has actually declined. In addition to low rates, there are very strict eligibility requirements to access provincial social assistance in most provinces and territories, including dollar-for-dollar clawbacks for applicants with any employment income and very low liquid asset limits to qualify for support.  

3. People with disabilities 

People receiving provincial disability support represent 13.6 per cent of total households accessing food banks. 

While the proportion of clients receiving provincial disability support as their main source of income has declined compared to before the pandemic, this decline is not due to a decreased need among people with disabilities but rather to increases in the proportions of households with other main sources of income. People with disabilities have been experiencing disproportionate levels of hardship because the costs of their higher health care needs are compounded by the effects of rapid inflation. Among the general population in 2023, 28 per cent of people with a physical disability and 39 per cent with a mental disability reported going hungry in the previous 12 months because of lack of money for food, compared to 10 per cent of people without a disability. 

4. Indigenous people 

The percentage of Indigenous people accessing a food bank is 12 per cent, even though they represent only 5 per cent of the general population. 

The percentage of Indigenous people accessing a food bank is 12 per cent in 2023 — even though they represent only 5 per cent of the general population. With income-based poverty rates nearly double those of the non-Indigenous population, First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people experience the compounded effects of low income and the challenges of managing inflation rates for basic needs that exceed what is experienced by the non-Indigenous population. Climate change has also impacted access — both market-based and traditional — to food among Indigenous communities. Among the general population in 2023, nearly half (48%) of people who are Indigenous reported having gone hungry in the previous 12 months due to lack of money for food, compared to 15 per cent of the white population. 

5. Low-income workers 

17 per cent of food bank clients report employment as their main source of income, compared to 12 per cent in 2019. 

After over a decade of hovering between 11 per cent and just over 12 per cent, the percentage of food bank clients whose main source of income is employment has increased significantly since 2021. This group now represents nearly 17 per cent of food bank clients — the highest proportion ever. This increase coincides with the significant increase in racialized groups accessing food banks in the last year — from 32.5 per cent in 2022 to 39.3 per cent in 2023.  

6. Newcomers 

26.6 per cent of food bank clients are newcomers to Canada who have been in the country for 10 years or less. 

The proportion of recent newcomers to Canada accessing food banks significantly increased from last year — when they comprised 17.2 per cent of food bank clients — and has more than doubled compared to 2016 — when they comprised 12.5 per cent of clients. Recent newcomers are more likely to have unstable jobs, unpredictable work hours, and fewer benefits such as drug and dental insurance. Recent newcomers are also more likely to be renters, which means they are likely paying higher median shelter costs and more than 30 per cent of their income on housing. The combination of these factors leaves them particularly vulnerable to the impacts of rapid inflation. Furthermore, newer arrivals fleeing war in their home countries face extreme challenges finding affordable housing and varying levels of government support depending on their immigration status. 

While food banks continue to work hard to fill the gaps created by poor public policies that are failing to meet the needs of Canadians, they are not a permanent solution to food insecurity or poverty. 

It is only through strong public policies that we can achieve our vision of a Canada where no one goes hungry.