Toronto’s largest food bank says it is at “breaking point” and cannot keep up with the increasing demand for food.

During a news conference Tuesday morning, Neil Hetherington, CEO of the Daily Bread Food Bank, said that the solution to addressing the city’s food insecurity and affordability crisis is to reduce the number of people who rely on food banks.

He’s demanding that the Ontario government immediately step up and provide every person on social assistance with an emergency funding top up, like it did during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It's the government's duty to ensure that every person in this city is in a position that they can realize their right to food. So today, we are raising the alarm bells and we'll continue to do so. We will not stand silently while our neighbours go hungry,” he said,

“It's not about food raising or fundraising at this press conference. It's about raising our collective voices to change the fundamental systems that have driven us to this point.”

Pointing to record high rates of inflation, rising rents, and stagnant incomes that are causing Torontonians to struggle more than ever before to put food on their table, he said the Daily Bread is doing what it can, but the need in the city is “continuing at an unsustainable rate of exponential growth.”

Last month, the Daily Bread saw an unprecedented 270,000 client visits, the highest-ever number recorded in its 40-year history.

In early 2020, the south-Etobicoke-based charity served roughly 65,000 clients a month. When the pandemic hit, they saw 120,000. That initial number has now quadrupled.

The amount of people experiencing food insecurity is also growing at a worrying rate as about 12,500 new clients are coming to Daily Bread’s food banks each month, a figure that is six times more than before the start of the pandemic.

“(These are people who) have never been to a food bank before and now they are relying on food charity to be able to feed their families,” Hetherington said, adding more than a third of their clients work full time.

“It used to be that if you went to school, got an education got a job, you would be just fine. That isn't the case anymore. … Let me be very clear, we are in a crisis.”

Hetherington said the Daily Bread Food Bank used to spend $1.5 million on food in a year, but is now spending $1.8 million each month on food, adding while they have ensured that they have the funds to carry on, it's not at a sustainable rate and “over the course of some 18 to 24 months, the pandemic funds set aside by the Daily Bread Food Bank will be depleted.” This could mean that the food bank will have no other choice but to reduce the amount of food clients receive, he said.

Neil Hetherington

In a statement provided to late Tuesday afternoon, the Ontario Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services said in late 2022 the provincial government made the largest social assistance increase in decades by upping the rates for income support by five per cent for families and individuals under the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP).

“Future ODSP rates will also be tied to the rate of inflation, with the first adjustment taking place in July,” a spokesperson wrote.

“We have also provided a 400% increase in the earnings exemption which will empower thousands of ODSP recipients with the opportunity to fill the 400,000 open jobs in Ontario.”

The Minsitry went on to say that it is also supporting people on Ontario Works by giving them access to extended health benefits “that can help them even if they start a job and no longer qualify for financial assistance.”

“Outside of social assistance, there are also a variety of income-tested benefits available to Ontarians, such as federal and provincial children’s benefits and the Ontario Trillium Benefit (a tax-free payment that helps low-to-moderate-income Ontario residents pay for energy costs, sales and property tax). This is all in addition to the over more than $8.5 billion in social assistance payments we issued in 2021/22,” a spokesperson said.

“We look forward to hearing more about the federal government’s proposed Canada Disability Benefit. On top of Ontario’s extensive programs and supports, this additional program will help increase the level of supports for low-income Ontarians with disabilities.”

Lee Soda, executive director of Agincourt Community Services, said hunger and food insecurity cannot be solved by charities.

Sharing the words and worries of those who have accessed Daily Bread-supported food banks in Scarborough, Soda said it is the “government’s duty to ensure everyone in our city has the right to food.”

“As an anchor agency member agency of Daily Bread, we share today's message of urgency with every month that goes by bringing thousands more people struggling with food insecurity through our doors. We are at a breaking point in our system and call on the provincial government to step up and take action,” she said.

Over in downtown Toronto, Devi Arasanayagam, co-founder and board chair of the Fort York Food Bank, said what she’s seeing on the ground is a “fragile system that is at a breaking point.”

“What we saw an experienced in March is something I have never experienced in my 25 years at the food bank,” she said, pointing to 3,000 clients who visited the local food bank in a week and more than 100 first-timer users, which is the highest number they’ve ever recorded.

“When we set up this place up 25 years ago, we didn't even imagine that we would be here today with lineups in a prosperous city. This is not something that we should be experiencing,” Arasanayagam said.

Hetherington, who also attributes the crisis the city is facing to a lack of investment in affordable housing, said recently the team at Daily Bread has been meeting with “elected official after elected official with the same message, the same policy alternatives, and the same opportunity for hope.”

“We have everything that we can to make sure that the voices of those who are experiencing food insecurity is heard and we have an opportunity for that message to be acted on by the provincial government,” he said.