‘They’re struggling’

Sandra Hartman of the Petrolia Food Bank

Rising costs driving more people to look for help with food

The problems of the people coming through the doors of the Petrolia Food Bank are sadly familiar.
One woman quit her part-time job because most of her pay cheque was going to pay for the gas to get there.
Seniors who once gave cash and food to the Petrolia charity, are now turning to the charity for help because their pensions are shrinking.
Another family which had broken the cycle of poverty 10 years earlier had to walk through the doors again.
The manager of the Petrolia Food Bank says says in a time of rising inflation, the working poor and the elderly are increasingly using the pantry for help.
Before the pandemic, there would be about 20 to 25 families come to the door Monday morning for help. “Now we’re seeing anywhere from 20 and one week we had 47 families come through on the Monday,” Sandra Hartman says.
Inflation in Canada hit 8.1 per cent in June – the highest rate in decades. Most people notice the price increases at the pumps and in the grocery store. Hartman says for the working poor, that increase is enough to throw all their finances out of whack. Hartman says there is a “trickling effect” to each increase.
“It is just – they’re struggling; they’re all struggling.”
And the first thing people who are struggling do to save some cash is cut their food budget because, Hartman says, they know they can get help at the food bank.
“They can’t afford produce is the main thing,” she says. “They expressed to me that it’s easier for them to eat unhealthy foods. It’s cheaper to buy unhealthy foods than it is to have your milk and your produce and your meats.”
And in the last few months, Hartman and her volunteers have been trying to find ways to help the people who are now homeless in Petrolia.

Hartman says about six clients are either living rough outside or in their car. There are more that are couch surfing – moving from home to home to find a place to rest.
“If there’s somebody that’s living in their car, we can’t really give them foods that they really need to cook like rice. We don’t give them frozen stuff. We just try to adapt it as best as we can,” she says.
Valerie Colassanti knows how hard it is to find help for people without a home. She’s the general manager of social services in Lambton County and during the pandemic had to deal with huge increases in the number of people without a home.
People who had been living with friends were forced out on their own as people isolated to stop the spread of COVID-19. At one point 250 people in Lambton needed emergency housing.
While Colassanti says many people have found a home, there are still just under 100 people in the county without a permanent place to live. “People can’t afford to have someone stay with them now,” she says. And it is very costly to go it alone. If the person is receiving social assistance, they’re getting just $733 a month to live on. That barely will cover half of the cost of the average rent in Lambton.
“With the rent increases and all food inflation, there is just no money left.”
So, Colassanti says, many people with Ontario Works are left to search for food. “People are spending all of their time going from food bank to food bank, from soup kitchen to the next place, … they spent all of their time trying to get their basic needs. So even if someone’s looking for work, they also have to make sure they’re finding food to feed their family.”
Even the most careful budgeter can’t get around increasing food costs, Colassanti adds.
“They’re already buying those, you know, those products, the cheapest product they can. So now what do they do when those go up, there’s nowhere for them to go other than the food bank.”
The struggle to find food or substituting cheap food for produce will lead to more problems down the road.
“If they’re not eating properly, then of course, their health starts to deteriorate. And again, if you’re struggling all the time, and you’re constantly worried about how to feed your family, how to pay your bills, then you also can start to have mental health crisis. So that is on top of the housing insecurity, and it’s very troubling.”
Colassanti says the most efficient way to help people who are struggling is to increase the amount of money people can receive from Ontario Works.
There hasn’t been an increase since 2016 when the provincial Liberal government upped it by 1.5 per cent. Inflation since that time has increased 18.25 per cent.
During the provincial election in June, there was some push to have the rates paid through the Ontario Disability Support Plan increased. The Conservatives – who were re-elected – pledged to increase the $1,116 monthly rate by 10 per cent.
There was never any discussion about increasing the rates paid by Ontario Works.
Colassanti says between the rising prices, the lack of affordable housing and the mental health issues facing people with lower incomes, there are no quick or easy answers to improving life for those with the least.
“There just isn’t the affordable housing and it takes time to build affordable housing,” says Colassanti. “It takes dollars from all levels of government to build affordable housing. And it’s not just affordable housing, we need affordable housing supports. Some people need support to assist them, particularly those struggling with mental health issues or addiction issues.
“So we’ll need dollars from everywhere. It’s going to take time.”
And if government’s don’t act quickly, Colassanti says the crisis is only going to deepen.
“If we continue to see inflation increasing and the rates don’t increase, I think we will have more people living rough.”
Hartman agrees adding she’s expecting to see more working poor walking through the doors. “They’re just everyday people…They’re somebody that works in our community that we probably have all seen at their job.”
And she calls that heartbreaking.