There were a record 1.45 million visits to Toronto food banks during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic as new clients outnumbered existing clients for the first time ever, according to a new report.

The annual Who’s Hungry report, conducted by Daily Bread Food Bank and North York Harvest, took a closer look at the demand for food banks between April 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021, a period that roughly coincided with the first year of the pandemic.

It revealed a surge in demand for food banks as the pandemic took hold and job loses piled up with total visits up 47 per cent from the previous year.

The authors of the report called that sort of increase “unprecedented.” In fact they said that visits are rarely up by more than five or 10 per cent year-over year with the lone exceptions being when the financial crisis resulted in a 14 per cent increase in food bank usage in 2010 and when significant cuts to social programs in Ontario resulted in an 18 per cent increase in 1996.

“It was a record breaking year and not for a positive reason,” Daily Bread Food Bank CEO Neil Hetherington said during an interview with CP24 on Monday morning. “There were 1.45 million client visits that occurred in food banks across the city. The previous record was during the 2008 recession and that number was 1.5 times less than what we are currently facing. Just because the cost of living in the city is so dramatic, income security is not where it needs to be and a result people need to do what they need to do to feed their families.”

The report was based largely on online and phone interviews with more than 1,300 food bank clients during the first wave of the pandemic, as well a series of follow up interviews that were held one year later.

It found that 31 per cent of respondents reported going an entire day without eating due to food insecurity.

But that number was much higher among long-term food bank clients.

About 58 per cent of those individuals reported going a whole day without eating almost every month.

The report said that at least some of the rise in demand can be attributed to job losses during the COVID-19 pandemic with about one in five new clients citing the recent loss of income as the reason they needed to visit a food bank.

However, the report also suggested that the high cost of housing in Toronto exasperated the impacts of the pandemic.

It said that while there was an overall 4.6 per cent decrease in the cost of a two-bedroom apartment during the pandemic that was largely driven by a 10 per cent drop in condo rents, which are typically more expensive. Purpose-built apartments actually saw a two per cent increase in rent costs during the pandemic, according to the report.

“Somebody for example on disability has about $1,200 to survive on a month and nobody in the City of Toronto can get by with that type of income,” Hetherington said. “We also know that the average food bank user has $9.17 to survive on (per day) after paying for rent. That is what the average food bank user has. There are just so many people in this city that are struggling,”

While the pandemic did result in the temporary closure of some food banks, the report said that Toronto had gained seven food banks by March, 2021.

It said that while the “net increase in food banks enhanced food access in some parts of the city, the increase in client visits observed is a result of the underlying need” for more food bank services throughout Toronto.