Food banks across Canada brace for impact of soaring natural gas prices

James McCarten
Canadian Press
January 21, 2001

Food banks across Canada are bracing for an increase in the number of people on fixed incomes looking for help as a result of the soaring price of heating fuel. Seniors, the disabled and people living on social assistance are among those expected to feel the brunt of a doubling in home heating bills over the last two years.

“We have heard some anecdotal stories from food bank users who have expressed concern about the increase in fuel costs,” said Chris Slosser of Toronto’s Daily Bread Food Bank.

“The general increase in prices has been on people’s minds and certainly has affected their pocketbooks.”

It’s still too early to say just how many more people are being forced to turn to food banks as a result of the increased cost of heating their homes, Slosser said.

But it’s a well-documented fact that when people are forced in winter to choose between heat and food, they will typically sacrifice sustenance in order to stay warm.

Some 125,000 people were visiting Daily Bread during the first three months of 2000, but by the end of the year that number had climbed to 140,000, Slosser said.

“Often, people who are on fixed incomes have a choice to make: they either spend their money on housing costs or on food,” he said.

“Anything that is increasing the cost of housing is going to cut into the money that’s allocated for food.”

It’s much the same story in Winnipeg, where an anticipated increase has yet to manifest itself, said Susan Swatek, the local food bank’s assistant executive director.

“We know there will be an impact; there can’t possibly not be one,” Swatek said.

“We’re talking seniors, we’re talking people on social assistance, and everybody who’s currently using a food bank would also be experiencing those sorts of problems.”

The concerns are especially troubling for senior citizens, who can be more susceptible to the ill effects of a poor diet, said Shirley Dmytruk, president of the United Senior Citizens of Ontario.

Older people also have additional expenses such as regular medication which can also become too expensive when the cost of heat increases, Dmytruk said.

“It’s impacting on me right now,” said Dmytruk, who’s currently paying 62 cents a litre for heating oil, up from 51 cents last year, an increase that translates into $100 more per month on her bill.

“It’s just gone wild; it’s gone beyond belief.”

In Ontario, natural gas rates have increased 58 per cent since Sept. 1999, according to Enbridge Consumers Gas, the province’s largest natural gas supplier.

The increase is primarily the result of higher demand for natural gas across North America as burgeoning industries use the clean-burning fuel for manufacturing and the generation of electrical power, which is also in short supply.

The recent opening of the Alliance export pipeline has also depleted the Western Canadian supply of gas by shipping it to the U.S., removing a bottleneck that has historically kept the bulk of Canada’s supply north of the border.

Happily, there are early indications that natural gas prices will be back to more reasonable levels by next year’s heating season, said Tom Adams of Energy Probe, a Toronto-based energy watchdog.

“The futures market is throwing up an expectation that prices will drop by about 50 per cent in the next 15 months,” Adams said.

“That is not a guarantee that prices are in for a big plunge, but it certainly is a good indication.”

It stands to reason, then, that now is not the time for homeowners to lock into a fixed-rate contract, Adams added. Instead, stopping drafts, installing a programmable thermostat and donning a sweater are probably the most sensible tactics.


In general, the high cost of fuels of all kinds, including gasoline, have made life difficult for retired people who have moved out of the big cities, said Dmytruk, who lives north of Toronto, near Orillia.

“I moved up to the country because it’s not as expensive to live here,” she said.

“But then comes the $100 increase on my heating bill, which I thought I was going to be able to get by on by living up here.”

Governments are offering some relief. Ontario, for example, is offering its low-income residents $200 in energy subsidies, all Alberta taxpayers are getting $300 and the federal government has promised $200 to cover heating costs for people who now get the GST rebate.

Those kinds of breaks, while small, can make a major difference to the seniors living in cramped apartments who can’t afford such basic amenities as telephone service, Dmytruk said.

“A five-dollar bill saved for a senior is a lot of money sometimes.”

Many welfare recipients in Canada, most notably in Ontario, have seen their benefits cut in recent years without subsequent increases to offset the rising cost of living, said Julia Bass, executive director of the Canadian Association of Food Banks.

“In a large number of provinces, social assistance recipients in particular have not had a cost of living increase in a number of years.”

Some tips on how to make a home more energy efficient, from Enbridge Consumers Gas:

Upgrade your furnace: A furnace more than 10 years old is likely only 55 per cent efficient, which means it’s wasting nearly half of every heating dollar you spend.

Add a humidifier: Humid air is better at retaining heat than dry air.

Regular maintenance: Clean or replace the furnace filter at least once every three months throughout the heating season.

Lower the thermostat: Turning down the heat by three degrees C at bedtime and before the house is left empty all day can cut heating fuel use by as much as seven per cent. Programmable thermostats can make these adjustments automatically.

Clean house: Stop air leaks and drafts, improve air circulation by ensuring vents are not blocked by furniture or curtains, and clean heat register and cold air grills. Also close the chimney damper when not using the fireplace.

Fans: Ceiling fans keep the house cool in summer and push rising warm air away from the ceiling in winter.


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