Food banks in Alberta helped significantly more people this March compared to a year earlier, a major reason that national usage increased over the same month in 2014, according to a report released Tuesday.
The HungerCount 2015 report compiled by Food Banks Canada says 852,137 people, including 305,366 children, accessed a food bank in this country during March, a slight increase over March of last year.
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The report looked at more than 4,000 food programs across Canada.
"The national increase was strongly influenced by the province of Alberta, where food bank use rose by a shocking 23 per cent in the past year," Food Banks Canada said in a release.
Food banks in Alberta assisted 67,443 people this March in the wake of the dropping price of oil and the resulting waves of layoffs in the energy sector.
"With the downturn in the oil and gas sector, we know that 35,000 jobs were lost, but there's also a lot of ripple effect," said Katharine Schmidt, executive director of Food Banks Canada.
Usage in Alberta is up by almost 83 per cent since March 2008 — right before the start of the global financial crisis — when the number of people turning to food banks was at an all-time low across the country.
Three-quarters of food banks in Alberta reported an increase in use, with 41 per cent of the clients being children, according to the report.
The Calgary Food Bank is feeding about 10,000 more people per month, says CEO James McAra.
"When the price of oil changes, we see an impact in Alberta. We see an impact in Calgary," he said.
National figures show slight rise
Nationally, food bank use in March was 1.3 per cent higher than in 2014, an increase over March 2013, and 26 per cent higher than in 2008, the start of the economic downturn.
"In the short term, people turn to food banks for diverse reasons — layoffs, a sudden illness, a rent increase that eats into a family's food budget," said Schmidt.
"The underlying issue that has kept food bank use so high for so long is the fact that millions of Canadians are trying to make ends meet with incomes that fall far below what is needed to afford the basic cost of living."
Food Banks Canada says more money needs to be invested in affordable housing and job training programs and that high levels of food insecurity in the north should be addressed.
The report found that food bank usage is up 9.1 per cent in the territories, with children accounting for 39 per cent of those helped.
"Our recommendation for Northern Canada is to really significantly increase the access for traditional foods as well as store-bought foods," Schmidt said at a news conference in Ottawa.
"No one should go hungry in a country as prosperous as Canada."
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made several campaign promises that closely mirror the policy recommendations in HungerCount 2015, Schmidt said.
"We're very encouraged by the new government," she said.
- Read the full report here: