Food-bank usage still near record levels in Canada, study says

A broader recovery since the recession hasn’t yet trickled down to those at the bottom, with the number of people relying on food banks remaining near record levels.

The number of Canadians using food banks fell 4.5 per cent this year from 2012, reflecting improvement in some regions, particularly the Prairies. But the annual count, which tallies the total number of recipients in March of each year, shows 833,098 people turned to a food bank in that month – near record levels and 23 per cent higher than before the recession, according to Food Banks Canada.

That level of reliance reflects challenges among several groups. One in eight people at food banks are employed, suggesting their paycheques don’t stretch far enough to pay for groceries. Single people are increasingly turning up at food banks, while a growing proportion are on disability supports which aren’t sufficient to meet basic needs.

“During a time of apparent economic recovery, far too many Canadians still struggle to put food on the table,” said the paper to be released Tuesday.

Food bank numbers often track, with a lag, the country’s jobless rate. And while improved this year, the country’s unemployment is still, at 6.9 per cent, nearly a percentage point higher than its pre-recession levels.

Food banks – never meant to be a permanent solution for people living on low incomes – have been assisting more than 700,000 people each month for much of the past 15 years.

“The problem they address has never been as severe, for as long a period, as it is now,” the report said.

Many people are not habitual recipients. In each of the past three years, roughly one in 10 people were coming to a food bank for the first time.

One in 10 people using food banks are aboriginal, and another one in 10 are recent immigrants, reflecting higher poverty rates and a more difficult labour market for these groups. More than a third of recipients were children.

Elham, who asked that her last name not be used, is a Toronto single mother of two children, ages 9 and 15, who relies on the food bank. She came to Canada from Iran in 2002 and dreams of becoming a nurse one day but currently can’t work due to a medical problems. All of the $1,150 a month she receives in social assistance goes to pay for rent.

As a result, she goes without a winter jacket or boots, wearing two or three layers of Tshirts instead, to cover costs like laundry, the Internet, groceries and transportation for her children. “I have to be a very good manager of money,” the 35-year-old says.

The loss of well-paid, blue-collar manufacturing jobs is one reason why food-bank usage has spiked. For those who don’t have the skills to land good jobs, access to education and training is difficult. Jobless benefits and social assistance have become tougher to get, and the “meagre incomes” they supply aren’t enough to cover costs of nutritious food, the report said.

As a result, Canadian food banks now assist a population each month that is more than the population of New Brunswick.

Use of food banks varies by region. The percentage of people using them fell in Ontario and westwards, while it rose in Quebec and New Brunswick. In the territories, it jumped 52 per cent. Food insecurity in the North has become a “dire public health emergency,” the paper said, with soaring food costs leaving many people without enough to eat, nor enough healthy food.

The report makes five recommendations, among them the need for long-term, federal funding for affordable housing, more investment in Northern Canada to address food insecurity in the region and more funds for vulnerable groups to get job training.

Food-bank statistics are among the few current national indicators on poverty in Canada. National numbers don’t exist for social assistance rates, the number of people whose jobless benefits expire without them finding work or cross-Canada waiting lists for affordable housing.

Numbers for the country’s most populous province suggest many people are still struggling. Ontario waiting lists for affordable housing rose 28 per cent between 2006 and 2011, to more than 156,000 people.

Food bank stats don’t cover the greater number of Canadians that are experiencing “food insecurity,” or inadequate access to food due to financial constraints. By this broader measure, 1.6 million households in Canada or one in eight households experienced some degree of food insecurity in 2011, up from 2008 levels, according to research funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research released last month.