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High hydro costs sending Ontarians to food banks, report says

By John Miner, The London Free Press

Donation boxes for The London Food Bank are found in many grocery stores like Metro near the exit. Local stores have pre-selected food bags available for purchase that make giving easier in London, Ont. Photograph taken on Sunday November 27, 2016. (MIKE HENSEN, The London Free Press)

Donation boxes for The London Food Bank are found in many grocery stores like Metro near the exit. Local stores have pre-selected food bags available for purchase that make giving easier in London, Ont. Photograph taken on Sunday November 27, 2016. (MIKE HENSEN, The London Free Press)

Rising power bills — not just lack of good jobs and high food prices — are forcing hundreds of thousands of Ontarians to turn to food banks, a new report by a food bank umbrella group warns.

In yet another sign of the crisis caused for many in the province by soaring electricity rates, the Ontario Association of Food Banks says the fallout is putting the squeeze on the basic needs of many.

“If people have to choose between keeping the lights on and going hungry, they go without food,”

Carolyn Stewart, executive director of the association, said ahead of Monday’s release of the group’s Hunger Report 2016.

Soaring hydro costs have become an Achilles heel for the Liberal government, which took a costly plunge into green energy in 2009 and has been raked over the coals by the auditor general for ignoring its own energy planners and saddling consumers with billions of dollars above market prices for power.

Amid polls showing her own popularity in free fall, Premier Kathleen Wynne recently surprised many by saying she hadn’t paid “close enough attention to some of the daily stresses in Ontarians’ lives,” citing electricity prices, and vowing “I'm going to do my best to fix it.”

Wynne has promised relief beyond the scheduled removal in January of Ontario’s eight per cent portion of the HST on hydro bills, but those details haven’t been announced yet.

Almost one year ago, the province cut a 10 per cent subsidy on hydro bills, worth more than $1 billion a year.

The food bank association reports suggests time is running short, with many who rely on food banks now facing $300 to $700 monthly hydro bills.

Across Ontario, food bank use remains seven per cent higher now than before the last recession, with more than 335,000 people turning to food banks monthly, the 2016 Hunger Report found.

Of those relying on food banks, the association found, more than one-third are children — making them the largest single group of food bank users.

While food prices escalated for several years before flattening out in 2016, Stewart said they’re not the main culprit.

Instead, the report points the finger at hefty electricity bills, up more than 100 per cent in the last 10 years while Ontario social assistance has remained relatively stagnant.

More than 60,000 homes were disconnected last year for failing to pay their electricity bills and Ontarians have $172.5 million in outstanding hydro bills.

Ontario’s food banks are seeing more and more people who say they simply can’t keep up with rising hydro bills, Stewart said.

Some food banks have responded by offering utility support programs and hydro assistance.

The report noted that Ontario offers some relief through its low-income energy assistance program and the Ontario electricity support program, but added that’s not enough.

And it’s not just hungry people jolted by rising electricity bills. The report notes that food banks — whose refrigerators and freezers use lots of power — are struggling to pay their electricity bills and meet the demand for service.

A little more than a week ago, Wynne told a Liberal gathering it’s unacceptable for people to have to choose between food and heating.

The surprise admission came amid recent polling showing the Liberals in trouble, and on the heels of a Toronto-area by­election loss for the government that Wynne and others have blamed on rising power bills.

Besides soaring power prices, the Hunger Report blames disturbingly high levels of food bank use on the type of work available in Ontario.

While many people are back to work after the recession, fewer have full-time jobs that allow them to afford their most basic needs, the report said.

“Without adequate income, those who are already struggling to cover the basic cost of living must make incredibly difficult choices: ‘Do I heat my home or do I put gas in my car? Do I pay the rent or put food on the table?’ ” the report said.

In London, Glen Pearson, co-director of the London Food Bank, said part of the 11 per  cent increase in local food bank use compared to the previous year can be chalked up to ­rising electricity and shelter costs cited in the provincial report. Another factor driving usage up in London is the arrival of refugees, he said.

“We are handling a number of those that have been referred to us and we are glad to do that,” he said.

Along with electricity and housing costs, Pearson said food prices still remain a factor for many people.

“They might have levelled off somewhat, but now we are hearing those food prices are going to begin to start to climb,” he said.

“It just leaves people more at risk than they were before.”

jminer@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/JohnatLFPress