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People wait for food baskets at the Sun Youth food bank in Montreal on April 9. A total of 794,738 Canadians turned to food banks in March, according to Food Banks Canada. ((Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press))

The number of Canadians needing aid from food banks swelled in March to almost 800,000, an increase of almost 120,000 from the same month the previous year.

The year-over-year increase of 17. 6 per cent was the largest increase since 1997, said Food Banks Canada's executive director, Katharine Schmidt.

'Food banks have unfortunately seen first-hand the effects of three recessions in three decades.' —Katharine Schmidt, Food Banks Canada

The recession was seen as the primary culprit for the rise in food bank reliance, the group said. In total 794,738 people turned to food banks in March, representing about 2.4 per cent of Canada's population. About nine per cent — or 72,321 people — were first-time users.

"Food banks have unfortunately seen first-hand the effects of three recessions in three decades," said Schmidt in a statement from Ottawa on Tuesday.

"It is crucially important that, as we rebuild the economy, we begin to better address the barriers that prevent too many Canadians from sharing in the national prosperity," she said.

Schmidt said the groups' findings show both unemployment and underemployment are issues for Canadians that need to be addressed.

The group found 19 per cent of those assisted by food banks each month are living on income from current or recent employment.

The report also found:

  • Alberta had the highest increase in food bank usage, with 61 per cent more Albertans relying on the assistance compared to last year.
  • Food banks assisted about 5.7 per cent of the population of Newfoundland and Labrador, making the province the most reliant on the assistance.
  • Canadians under 18 years old make up 37 per cent of those assisted by food banks.
  • Of assisted households, 6.3 per cent reported some type of pension as their primary source of income.

Food Banks Canada called on the federal government to:

  • Maintain planned levels of transfers to provincial, territorial and First Nations governments.
  • Implement a national poverty prevention strategy.
  • Increase use of the guaranteed income supplement (GIS) among low income seniors.
  • Ensure post-recession plans take into account low-income Canadians.

Map: National breakdown