December 31, 2017
The Ottawa Food Bank is using data to try to solve hunger in the city. The organization’s second annual Hunger Report was released on Dec. 11, and showed food bank use in Ottawa has gone up 5.6 per cent from last year. The problem is not yearly fluctuation of food bank use, which Michael Maidment, executive director of the Ottawa Food Bank, admits there is. The issue is more that food bank use in Ottawa has consistently stayed high since the 2008 economic decline. This year, food bank use in Ottawa is 7 per cent higher than it was in 2007.
“They’ve never gone below pre-recession numbers, and they’ve always stayed above that year after year,” said Maidment. Maidment said when food banks started in Canada in the ’80s, they were meant to be like the emergency room, to be used only for short-term need. The executive director admitted although he understands food banks are still there as an emergency service, the need has not ended. They should no longer be treated as a short-term solution.
That’s why the Ottawa Food Bank has teamed up with the Ottawa Neighbourhood Study, a program run out of the University of Ottawa that collects and analyzes data throughout the city, to see how they could improve on food banking in Ottawa.
“Is food bank use correlated with cost of housing in that area, or other factors? That’s what we wanted to find out,” said Maidment. The partnership was solidified by a grant from The Maple Leaf Centre for Action on Food Security awarded the partners in late October, which gives $75,000 over two years to test out different methods of food banking in the city.
“We’ve never really tested to see if one way of doing it has a better approach than another way,” said Maidment.
Betsy Kristjansson, a professor in psychology at the University of Ottawa who specializes in food insecurity, and one of the minds behind the Ottawa Neighbourhood Study, said she and PHD student Neta Helena Enns, became interested in how long-term food insecurity affects a person’s overall well-being. The result of these questions is a study that will survey 800 food bank users from 11 different locations across the city. The locations could not be identified for privacy reasons. According to Helena Enns, most of the 800 food bank users will get general question and answer surveys, but three or four people from each food bank will be asked to participate in more in-depth interviews, which will give the study more perspective on individual situations. Although both Kristjansson and Helena Enns emphasized that every community food bank’s main goal was to serve their community, the study hinges on the unique strategies of each location.
“We saw everyone was doing things a bit differently,” said Helena Enns.
It’s the goal of the study to see how food bank users respond to these different programs, like food hampers or kitchen workshops. At the end, the data and analysis will be presented to the Ottawa Food Bank to see how they can improve on their services.
“The neat thing is that different food banks will be learning from each other,” said Kristjansson. Both researchers note the goal of the study is not to rank the services of the community food banks, but to understand how different neighbourhoods with specific social factors affect food bank use and services.
“There’s not much research on the subject,” said Helena Ens. In fact, other than a shorter study happening in BC, there isn’t any research like it in Canada.
The researchers have just begun the sign-up portion of the study and they expect to gather their 800 participants by February. Kristjansson said after the two-year study is done and delivered to the Ottawa Food Bank, she would like to make the research public on the Ottawa Neighbourhood Study website.
How housing affects hunger in Ottawa
The Ottawa Hunger Report highlighted affordable housing as a broader solution that could directly affect food bank use in the city. According to the report, the average one-bedroom apartment in Ottawa costs $982, one of the highest averages in Canada. That’s second only to Toronto in Ontario. The report also noted that half of those who use community food banks in Ottawa are single adults living alone.
“When rent is high, if you don’t have a spouse or a partner or a roommate or somebody to help you pay the rent, then that becomes a challenge,” said Maidment.
According to the report, many of these single adults are represented by young adults suffering from precarious employment opportunities. This group saw the second highest growth rate in food bank use since 2008.
Maidment also said many food bank users are on social assistance. For a single individual, social assistance in Ontario is $656, which isn’t enough for one person to cover rent, let alone to afford groceries for a month. The report notes that nearly 20 per cent of Canadians spend half of their income on rent.
“The social assistance hasn’t kept pace with rising costs,” said Maidment. He believes the price of housing is one of the driving forces of food bank use. “It’s one of the main factors that could change food bank numbers, building more affordable housing.”
Currently, there are 22,500 affordable housing units in Ottawa, and more than 10,000 families on a waiting list for that housing.
The report gave a nod to the city’s 10-year housing plan, which is scheduled to go from 2014-2024, and is meant to build more affordable housing in Ottawa.
[This article was written by Alexandra Mazur and first appeared in Metro land Media Group’s Ottawa Community News on 28 December 2017. ONS has always enjoyed its relationship with Ottawa’s community news resources and we will miss Metroland’s contribution following their acquisition and closure by Postmedia-Torstar.]