How We Work to Reduce the Need for Food Banks in the Future

In a rich country like Canada, it is often hard to imagine that there are people who can’t afford food for their families. While food banks and other charitable organizations are there to provide for the immediate need, Phil Ozga, Director of Advocacy and Government relations, works hard behind the scenes to find long term solutions for hunger.

“Our mission is two-fold: One is to reduce hunger today and the other is to prevent hunger tomorrow. My focus is specifically on the second part, which is to prevent hunger tomorrow. To do this, you really have to address the root causes of the problem, and the only way to do that is to advocate for policy change. We work on developing policies by looking at the data and finding where the holes are in the social safety net. I know positive change is possible. You just have to make sure that the government knows it too. Food insecurity is a real issue in Canada, but it is also hidden. You might not know that your neighbor is struggling to put food on the table, but it’s an issue that exists in every community, and we want the government to be aware that positive change is possible through long term policies”. 

Food banks see many people come and go, but what is most striking is the number of children that use food banks. This is why Phil and the team work hard to reduce childhood hunger.

“In 2013, we worked on a policy that was targeted towards helping low-income families with children, and this is when we came up with the idea to create a new all-encompassing benefit indexed to help low-income families – which has now become the Canada Child Benefit policy. It takes a long time for policies to be implemented and have an effect, but in 2016, it was introduced. And as we continue to monitor the effect of this policy, I am proud to say that we have seen a decrease in food bank use in children. It went from over 37% at the time to around 34% before the pandemic. There is still a long way to go, but it dropped and it is going in the right direction. I am really happy that we played a part in raising that issue and helping to develop sound government policy that is having an impact on children and their families”. 

And it does not stop there. Single seniors are another demographic who were impacted by our policy work. 

“We also saw an increase in food bank use with single seniors during that time frame. They live alone and some of them are unable to work. We wanted the government to see this, so we got to work and wrote a policy that would advise the government to increase the GIS (guaranteed income supplement), which is a monthly payment for those over the age of 65. In 2016, the government implemented an increase of 10%, and again, we saw the effect. The number of food bank use in single seniors dropped once that policy was implemented.”. 

The pandemic really heightened the need for food banks, and it was now more important than ever, to make sure that the government was aware. 

“Right at the beginning of the pandemic, we were very vocal about raising concerns with the government. We made it clear that if there were not enough social programs to help people, food bank use would go through the roof, and thank goodness we did. It’s been clear that programs like the CERB (Canada Emergency Response Benefit) and the top up to the Canada Child Benefit, among other supports, helped a lot. There are still people suffering, but the support from the government definitely helped and we hope that that support continues long into the recovery and beyond”. 

Despite the support from the government, it is clear that there is still a long way to go. 

“Unfortunately, it is still a long recovery ahead, but it is not impossible. We have to continue to raise these important issues. Not only raise them, but also provide solutions to address them. People don’t realize this, but government policies have the ability to change lives. And this is what I love about my job. Pushing policies can have deep and profound effects for thousands of families across the country. We just have to continue expanding on these policies and bring people out of poverty. This is the only way to reduce food bank use in the long term”. 

In the meantime, food banks will continue to be there for those who need them, not just by providing food, but also by providing all the support that people need. 

“Food Banks offer more than just food. I know that many people think that food banks provide just food, but this is just a vessel. They provide other services too and they do it with dignity. They help people get all the benefits they need, and also link them to other social programs. Above everything, they care. Many of those who use food banks have to no other support mechanism, so they can only rely on the food banks and they help, without any judgment. They also provide that human contact that we all need, and that goes a long way”. 

Not only is Phil proud of the work he does and the work that the food banks do, he is also proud of his fellow Canadians. 

“They really stepped up, and have been doing so for decades. I have never been prouder to be a Canadian. But I am also not surprised. I’ve seen the generosity of Canadians. People don’t realize, food banks exist because of the generosity of Canadians. We have received temporary support from the government throughout the pandemic, but before that, Canadians have always stepped up to help each other and continue to do so day in and day out. Canadians give back, whether its donating or through volunteering. Half of the food banks in Canada are only volunteer-driven and run. It is not only the pandemic that has made me proud but I’ve felt that way for a very long time”