British Columbia·FROM THE ARCHIVES

'A victim of our own success': B.C. food banks quickly became essential for many in 1980s

As food bank use hits an all-time high in B.C. with over 100,000 users, we take a look back to the 1980s, when food banks first appeared as permanent fixtures in the province.

First permanent food banks opened in 1982, feeding 250; by 1986, there were 31, feeding 8,300

The first food banks in B.C. opened in 1982

6 years ago
Duration 0:28
The banks were run out of churches and relied on volunteer donations of time and resources.

Poverty activists expressed concern this week that food banks are becoming "enshrined" in B.C. as the go-to way of handling poverty.

But a look back at the CBC archives suggests that was already happening more than 30 years ago.

The first formal, permanent food banks in B.C. are believed to have opened in 1982, and fed about 250 people per week.

By 1986, there were 31 — feeding 8,300.

Food banks turn away clients in 1984

6 years ago
Duration 0:58
With employment around 15% many food bank clients could line up for hours for a sandwich or go home empty.

The circumstances in the 1980s were much different from those of today.

Then, the B.C. economy was in shambles, shaken by a collapse in world commodity prices, and unemployment was somewhere between 13 and 15 per cent.

Making matters worse was then premier Bill Bennett's deep cuts to the provincial workforce, resulting in thousands losing their jobs and turning to food banks.

Community food banks lack support from 1986

6 years ago
Duration 0:53
Food banks call on the provincial government to supplement their resources in the face of increasing demand.

It didn't take long for people to fear that the entrenchment of food banks had begun.

"We are a victim of our own success to an extent, forced to fill a role that government has vacated responsibility for," Sylvia Russell, then-executive director of the Vancouver Food Bank told the Toronto Star in 1986.

It also didn't take long for food banks to start hitting their limits.

They often ran out of food, and one food bank in Victoria had to stop serving single men because their supplies were so low.

Victoria's Mustard Seed food bank turning away single men in 1985

6 years ago
Duration 1:00
With a hard economy came hard choices for food banks in how and who to give to.

These days, the provincial government regularly touts the B.C. economy as Canada's strongest, and unemployment is around six per cent.

Despite that, food bank use is growing in the province, reaching an all-time high in 2016 of 103,400 people, 32 per cent of whom are minors.

Activists, government and food banks themselves all say it's time to address the root causes of food insecurity, but there is a great deal of disagreement on what those root causes are.