Saskatchewan food banks now feeling full effect of economy's downturn

Saskatchewan has seen one of the largest increases in food bank usage.

Food bank usage in province up 17.5 per cent since last year

Regina's food bank has seen 200-250 individuals use its services for the first time over the last few months. (Glenn Reid/CBC)

If hunger numbers could be compared to a hurricane, the eye of the storm is now centred over Saskatchewan.

"Saskatchewan weathered the economic storm initially a little better than some of the other provinces." said Steve Compton, CEO of the Regina Food Bank while delivering the ominous forecast.

"I think now we're starting to see the full impact." 

This year we are feeling the full effect of economic circumstance.- Steve Compton

According to HungerCount 2016, a comprehensive report on hunger and food bank use in Canada which was released on Tuesday, Saskatchewan has seen one of the largest increases in the number of people accessing a food bank since last year.

"Saskatchewan has had a tough year. We're going to see an increase of over 17 per cent provincially and that puts us over 31,000 people that accessed service from Saskatchewan food banks in the month of March."

March is chosen as the study month because according to Compton, "It's a usual type of month, no holiday or significant event to skew the numbers."

Every province had an increase except Ontario and Manitoba, and some saw double-digit spikes. The territories had the biggest spike, with a 24.9 per cent rise in food bank use. The increases for the provinces were as follows:

  • Nova Scotia, 20.9 per cent. 
  • Alberta, 17.6 per cent. 
  • Saskatchewan, 17.5 per cent. 
  • P.E.I., 6.9 per cent. 
  • Quebec, 5.3 per cent.
  • Newfoundland and Labrador, 5.3 per cent
  • New Brunswick, 4.1 per cent.
Steve Compton is the CEO of the Regina Food Bank.

Compton blames the economy and the cost of living among other factors they haven't seen in some time which pushed a lot of people to their doors.

"When the resource economy slowed down, such as the price of oil, the effect is immediate in communities that had those right in their community. I think what we've seen is, that started to move down stream to the major centres and affected other employment."

Compton says Saskatchewan is now feeling the full effect of economic circumstance.

"It was increasing when we had economic boom and now it's getting higher," said Nicole Rancourt, NDP MLA and social services critic, of food bank usage in the province. 

Rancourt said the Saskatchewan government needs to look at the reasons why people are struggling. She said she would like to see the government possibly look at providing more benefits.

"One of my concerns is that our unemployment rate is increasing," Rancourt said.

Rancourt asked how the government is planning to address the issue of working class people using the food bank in increasing numbers. 

The cost of living, well paying jobs and people needing to work multiple jobs to make ends meet are some of the reasons for the usage increase, Rancourt said. 

Social Services Minister Tina Beaudry-Mellor said the issue of children using the food bank is a priority for the department. 

On the possibility of having a person's income go directly to groceries in a similar manner of someone's money going directly toward their rent, Beaudry-Mellor said it was an interesting idea and something that could be looked at. 

"It's something worth asking the ministry about and doing some exploration around," she said, adding it's also a timely idea since the department is re-designing the income assistance project.

Children over-represented

The percentage of children using food bank services is highest in Saskatchewan. Compton calls it a silent statistic.

"On most days you don't see a lot of children in here but it represents 45 per cent of everyone we serve in Saskatchewan which is a big number."

Compton attributes the 17.5 per cent increase in child usage to a lot of single parents and the cost of raising a family.

HungerCount 2016 was released on Tuesday.

Across the country, in March 2016, 863,492 people received service from a food bank in Canada. This is 1.3 per cent higher than the same period in 2015, and 28 per cent higher than in 2008. 

Job no guarantee against food bank use

Nearly one in six households helped in Canada are working, yet still need a food bank to make ends meet.

The report says the number of people working in poorly paid jobs continues to grow as large sectors of the population lack the skills necessary to qualify for well-paying work.

Compton calls that, "The more month than money scenario."

Regina's Food Bank CEO says over the last few months between 200 and 250 individuals reached out for support for the first time.

"I guess we would want to say we are here to help. We're not here to criticize or diminish or do anything negative along those lines, just acknowledging difficult financial circumstances, we're here to support families." 

The HungerCount 2016 report puts forward a number of policy recommendations to reduce the need for food banks, under four broad themes:

• A national poverty reduction strategy by Oct. 1, 2017.

• Real steps toward a basic income in Canada.

• A new deal for people on social assistance.

• Investment in food security for northern Canadians.

The full report is available at the Regina Food Bank's website.

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