With files from Monique Scotti, Global News.
More than 850,000 Canadians needed help feeding their families in March – up 1.3 per cent from March of 2015.
Food Banks Canada says Alberta, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia had the biggest jumps in traffic while Manitoba and Ontario saw slight declines.
However, London’s numbers were way up.
Co-director of the London Food Bank Glen Pearson tells AM980 usage in London was up 11 per cent year over year.
“I’m not surprised that the numbers are increasing. I think though that for Canadians who feel that we’re coming out of this pretty bad recession, it shouldn’t be this way – it’s probably a bit of a surprise.”
Pearson notes that while the numbers are up, he’s optimistic about the future.
“There is more and more of a desire we’re seeing from the public who ask us ‘does it always have to be like this? What needs to be done to lower these numbers?’ So I think we’ve been heartened in this last year that even though our numbers have gone up, the interest of the average donor seems to be more and more looking for solutions.”
Alberta was one of the hardest hit areas with Food bank use in the province was up by 17 per cent year-over-year as the price of oil plummeted and job prospects dried up. Since 2008, reliance on food banks in Alberta has skyrocketed 136 per cent.
“It’s really shocking what’s happening there,” said Shawn Pegg, director of policy and research with Food Banks Canada.
“This doesn’t even include data from after the wildfires … so we know food bank use is even higher in Alberta now than what is reflected in the report.”
Saskatchewan has seen a similar increase in food bank use between 2015 and 2016. Pegg noted that it’s not just oil patch workers who are affected by a struggling energy sector.
“It’s their families, it’s other businesses who are connected to the oil patch and even businesses like grocery stores, sporting goods stores,” he said.
Pegg predicted that Newfoundland and Labrador, where many energy sector workers have returned home, could see an increase in food bank use reflected in next year’s report.
Nova Scotia is already experiencing those effects, he said, and they’ve been compounded by high unemployment and cuts to social assistance programs. Food banks in the province saw a 20 per cent increase in visits between March 2015 and March 2016.
Meanwhile, newly arrived Syrian refugees have also been forced to reach out for help.
HungerCount 2016 bears out the anecdotal evidence that surfaced last winter, said Pegg, confirming that new arrivals are facing the same economic hardships as many other low-income Canadians.
In Surrey, B.C., which welcomed hundreds of Syrians last winter, the local food bank saw a 17 per cent increase in demand. The report states that refugees played “a big part” in the jump.
“They are facing a very difficult economy, a very difficult job market,” said Pegg. “Many refugees land in large urban centres where the cost of housing can be very high.”
Overall, however, immigrants and refugees make up only about 13 per cent of food bank users across the country.
Pegg noted that the vast majority of people will exhaust just about every other option — from selling their possessions to seeking out pay-day loans — before resorting to a food bank.
“It gives a sense of the kinds of negative circumstances people are in.”
So what can be done?
HungerCount 2016 makes a series of recommendations, including:
- Getting a national poverty reduction strategy tabled in Parliament no later than Oct. 1, 2017
- Allowing Canadians on social assistance to earn higher levels of income without seeing their benefits reduced
- Making sure people aren’t completely penniless before they are allowed to ask the government for help
The major recommendation, however, is to implement a guaranteed minimum income program across the country within the next five years.
The current social assistance structure is invasive, stigmatizing and traps people in poverty, the report argues.
“Our system of social supports was designed for the 1980s,” Pegg said.
“The labour market has changed, people’s access to well-paying jobs has decreased significantly, yet government programs to support people have changed hardly at all.”
Ontario’s provincial government recently announced plans to consult the public on a guaranteed-income pilot project.