One in Eight Households Needed to Access Food from a Community Organization in the Last Year

Low income workers, indigenous and racialized communities, and younger adults more likely to need help

 In March of last year, Angus Reid commissioned a poll which found that 14 per cent of respondents were worried about having to use a food bank or other service providing free food due to the economic downturn.1 One year later, results from a nationwide poll conducted by Navigator’s research firm, Discover, on behalf of Food Banks Canada, demonstrate those concerns may have come to fruition for many Canadians.

A year into the pandemic, 13 per cent of respondents reported that either they or someone in their household accessed free food or meals from a community organization at some point in the past year. A closer look at the results reveals findings similar to other studies which show the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on particular groups, including younger adults, those with lower income, and indigenous and racialized communities. These groups are not mutually exclusive, often overlap, and the lasting impact the pandemic may have on their longer term well being is of great concern. The results from this study provide insight on the scope of need that occurred throughout the past year, and also reinforce the need for significant income security reform.

One in eight Canadians, or 13 percent, said they accessed food or meals from a community organization in the last 12 months. Of those who did, the majority did so more than once.

When asked “In the past 12 months did you or other household members access food or meals, at no cost to you, from a community organization?”, 13 percent responded “yes”.2 When asked how often in the past 12 months, 30 percent said “one time”, 46 percent said “2 or 3 times”, and 24 percent said, “4 or more times”. These results indicate a greater depth of need for those who needed help, because they were living with lower levels of income for longer periods of time, and/or had few other resources to draw upon (such as assets, friends, or family, etc.) when money was tight.

Lower income workers more likely to need help

Those closest to the edge were more likely to be pushed over it due to the pandemic. Households with annual incomes under $35,000 were significantly more likely to have accessed free food or meals in the last year than all other income groups. Other research has shown those in the lowest income brackets experienced the largest loss of wages during the pandemic, including those in minimum wage jobs and others most affected by shutdowns (such as food service and tourism related occupations).3

Indigenous and racialized communities disproportionately impacted throughout the pandemic

The pandemic continues to magnify the systemic inequities in our society, including in communities that have historically been more likely to experience higher levels of poverty and food insecurity. Respondents who identified as Indigenous, or as belonging to one of various racialized groups, were more likely to have reported accessing a food program throughout the last year than those who identified as White. Pre pandemic, members of these communities were more likely to experience food insecurity, especially those who identified as Indigenous or Black.4 During the pandemic, Indigenous and racialized groups were more likely to report being vulnerable to the financial impact of COVID-19.5

A generation forever impacted

The pandemic and associated shutdowns have impacted younger age cohorts the hardest. Results from the survey show that respondents who are 18-24 years of age were significantly more likely to have accessed free food or meals in the last year than older age groups, followed by respondents who are 25-34. Other studies have outlined the disproportionate wage loss experienced by younger age cohorts who were more likely to be employed in heavily hit sectors that also encompass lower wage jobs (such as restaurants, retail and service sectors).6 One study noted that workers aged 20 to 29 took the biggest hit, “whose aggregate hours fell 40 percent and whose employment fell 25 percent as a result of the shutdowns”.7

COVID-19, food insecurity and food bank use: gaining a deeper understanding of how Canadians fared financially during the pandemic
 Exploring the full extent of need throughout the past year is a nuanced story. This poll gives us a glimpse of the overall scope of need throughout the entire year, which will become clearer in our upcoming HungerCount report and further academic studies of this period.

In our COVID Snapshot report, which looked at trends seen throughout a large sample of our network from February to June 2020, we observed that usage rates among food banks often varied depending on geographic location and populations served. For instance, food banks located in urban centres with populations of 100,000 or more, or whose clientele consisted of those receiving provincial social assistance, were more likely to see usage rates increase throughout this period despite unprecedented social policy measures from government.

Census data shows higher concentrations of racialized communities live in urban centres and increases in usage in these areas was mainly attributed to COVID-19 related job losses in harder hit sectors, combined with the higher costs of living in cities.

Those on provincial social assistance live on levels of income that fall beneath the official poverty line nationwide, and they are faced with continuing challenges like managing rapidly increasing costs of living such as housing and food. Previous HungerCount studies show that the main income source for the vast majority of clients nationwide is provincial social assistance, and they are also more likely to experience more severe levels of food insecurity.8

Added to these considerations is that many food bankers began to note a concerning change in direction in food bank usage in June 2020. Many began seeing an upward trend in need in that month, and food bankers attributed this to the expiration of some of the benefits and initiatives (such as eviction moratoriums, further job losses, and more of the country emerging from lockdown and quarantine restrictions that had restricted movement in the previous months.

Taken all together, this information, combined with the results from our national poll, may point to significant need for food programs over the past year.

What comes next
In our Snapshot report, we framed our call to action around a concern that food banks cannot simultaneously accommodate a wave of new clients while maintaining an existing level of support for the long-term need created by decades of policy neglect.

Our data collection shows that a shocking number of Canadians are approaching, or already are, in a state of food insecurity. Historically marginalized groups represent a large portion of this existing and at-risk population that is a mere economic shift away from relying on a food bank.

Canada needs sound social policies that pull these groups further away from (the possibility of) food insecurity, and that develops a more robust safety net for those Canadians who still fall through the cracks.

A particular focus must be made on those who are experiencing long-term poverty and marginalization. Many government initiatives have successfully pulled those living on the edge of the poverty line to a point just above that threshold but have left those in deep poverty in a perpetuating cycle within a system that is inherently difficult to climb out of.

For those needing food banks, issues around sufficient incomes and employment opportunities, the high cost of housing, inadequate social assistance and mental health supports are all top priorities; and the recent pandemic has highlighted deficits in each of these areas.

To help the Canadians who were forced into a food insecure situation over the last year, and for those who have lived with that reality each and every day for far longer, Canada must:

  1. Begin work towards a Minimum Income Floor which guarantees that no Canadian will live without the income and supports necessary to feed themselves and their families.
  2. Revitalize the National Housing Strategy with a focus on the immediate expansion and implementation of a housing benefit directly for low-income renters, who currently pay far too much of their income simply to put a roof over their head and have nothing left for necessities such as food.
  3. Provide better supports for Canada’s marginalized groups, including adults who live alone, those with disabilities, Indigenous populations, and racialized Canadians.

These are just a few of the policy directions the government should take to help Canadians living with food insecurity.

In the coming months, Food Banks Canada will be developing its annual HungerCount report and a National Poverty Strategy which will further address, in detail, what steps need to be taken so that every Canadian can feed themselves and their families in the future.

The results for this study were generated from an online panel of a representative sample of the general Canadian population.

For this study, an online survey was conducted among adult residents of Canada from March 12 to 17, 2021 resulting in a total, census-based sample of 2,077 Canadians over 18. The question asked of survey respondents was a variation of the Canadian Perspectives Survey Series (CPSS2), which was “In the past 30 days did you or other household members access food or meals, at no cost to you, from a community organization?”. For this survey, the question changed the time period from 30 days to 12 months.9

The margin of error for a strict probability sample would be ±2.2 percent, 19 times out of 20. Interlocked quotas were applied to ensure proportionate representation of provincial residents based on age, gender and region, reflective of the most up-to-date census information available. As such, no weighting was used. The survey was part of a larger study, commissioned and paid for by Food Banks Canada.

2 N=2,077
3 Lemieux, T., K. Milligan, T. Schirle, and M. Skuterud. 2020. “Initial Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the Canadian Labour Market.” Canadian Public Policy 46 (S1): S55-S65, and The Daily. 2021. “Household economic well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic, experimental estimates, fourth quarter 2020”.Statistics Canada, 28 May, 2021,
4 Tarasuk V, Mitchell A. (2020) Household food insecurity in Canada, 2017-18. Toronto: Research to identify policy options to reduce food insecurity (PROOF). Retrieved from Feng Hou, Kristyn Frank and Christoph Schimmele, ‘Economic Impact of COVID-19 among Visible Minority Groups’, Statistics Canada, 6 July 2020, and COVID-19 in Canada : a six-month update on social and economic impacts. Statistics Canada, 20 October 2020,
6 Lemieux, T., K. Milligan, T. Schirle, and M. Skuterud. 2020. “Initial Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the Canadian Labour Market.” Canadian Public Policy 46 (S1): S55-S65, and The Daily. 2021. “Household economic well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic, experimental estimates, fourth quarter 2020”.Statistics Canada, 28 May, 2021,
7 Lemieux, pg. S60.
8 “Food insecurity and social assistance.” Toronto: Research to identify policy options to reduce food insecurity (PROOF). Retrieved from
9 As in the CPSS2 survey, accompanying the question was the definition of “community organization”, in that it could “include food banks, community centres, school programs, faith-based organizations, or donations from community gardens.”