Canada’s food banks stretched to limit: report

A new report from Food Banks Canada shows food bank usage is up 23 per cent since the 2008 recession, despite improved economic outlook.

Being able to afford essential food has never been such a pervasive challenge for Canadians as it is now, according to a report released Tuesday by Food Banks Canada.

Despite an improved economic outlook, the report shows that the number of Canadians visiting food banks is 23 per cent higher than during the 2008 recession — when it was at its lowest in a decade — and food banks are stretched to their limit.

More than 800,000 Canadians visit one monthly. Roughly 300,000 of them are children.

“It’s incredibly concerning,” said Katherine Schmidt, executive director of Food Banks Canada. “We live in such a prosperous country.

“Far too many Canadians are looking into an empty fridge and wondering how they’re going to feed themselves and their kids.”

In Ontario, those who use food banks rely mainly on social assistance or disability-related income support. Only about 10 per cent of users derive their primary income from employment.

Roughly 65 per cent live in rental housing, and just under 24 per cent (urban) and 15 per cent (rural) live in social housing. For many, Schmidt said, it’s a choice between food and shelter.

“We have a number of recommendations into the government around investing in access to affordable housing, in increased investment in education and training for people who have failed in the job market but who want to work,” Schmidt said.

“Food banks are there to help people every day. But we really need governments to step up and make some policy changes.”

In the GTA alone, food banks have had more than a million visits a year for five years in a row.

And when it comes to putting food on the table in North York — an area of the city that’s seen a 38-per-cent increase in visits since 2008 — North York Harvest relies solely on financial and food donations.

Annette Chawla, executive director of North York Harvest, says the report is just a “snapshot in time” but “the future doesn’t look very rosy.”

“You do the best that you can,” Chawla said. “So far there’s a generous response from the community, but we need to raise more awareness.”

The effort the food bank puts in matters a great deal to one user, Sandip.

Sandip, 40, has been visiting North York Harvest for two years. Although he’s worked to overcome his pride in seeking help, he isn’t comfortable making his last name public because he still feels there’s a stigma around food banks.

“I felt vulnerable,” he said of his first visit.

“Everyone knew what I was there for,” he said, in part because the bank rents space in a high school.

But with a basket fully loaded with bread, pasta and plenty of vegetables, he doesn’t feel so vulnerable: “It exists for the reasons I use it.”

“The ultimate argument,” Sandip said, “is that no one should go hungry.”

But with many Canadians living from payday to payday, Schmidt said sometimes visits to a food bank are a reality for those you might not expect.

“If (someone’s) pay cheque is even one week late they’re in trouble.”