British Columbia

Tackle food insecurity with stronger income support in B.C., says poverty advocate

The B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition says food insecurity is on the rise among seniors and people of colour and it's time for comprehensive public policy to target poverty in British Columbia.

Demand at food banks has soared during the pandemic, especially among seniors, people of colour

Staff prepare food at the Greater Vancouver Food Bank in Burnaby, B.C. in March. Since the start of the pandemic, more than 50 per cent of provincial food banks have reported an increase in demand. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Too many people in British Columbia have been poor for too long and the COVID-19 crisis has shone a spotlight on how the system must change, according to the spokesperson for a provincial poverty advocacy organization.

Viveca Ellis, a community organizer at the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition, says while food insecurity has been a problem in the province for decades, the number of people worried about where their next meal is coming from has skyrocketed due to the pandemic.

However, Ellis said simply providing those in need with food is only a Band-Aid solution and what is critically needed to enact real change is to make sure people are financially secure enough to shelter and feed themselves without continually having to rely on food banks.

Since the start of the pandemic, more than 50 per cent of provincial food banks have reported an increase in demand and, according to Ellis, demand continues to rise among Indigenous, Black and British Columbians over the age of 65.

"This is a solvable problem," said Ellis Wednesday on CBC's The Early Edition.

Invest, don't cut

One place to start, said Ellis, is for the provincial government to continue a monthly $300 temporary COVID-19 support for people on disability and income assistance payments scheduled to end after December.

"It is time to make the bold and significant income-based investments that we know we need now to truly shift the dialogue on poverty," she said.

The coalition is also calling for investments in affordable housing so vulnerable people living on the poverty line are not skipping meals and foregoing bill payments just to keep a roof over their heads.

Children and hunger

There are currently about 557,000 British Columbians living below the poverty line and in some communities, one in four children do not have enough to eat.

Emily-Anne King, vice-president and co-founder of Backpack Buddies, told CBC demand for its services nearly tripled in 2020 and continues to grow.

Vancouver-based charity Backpack Buddies says there has been a sharp increase in demand for its services since the pandemic began. (Backpack Buddies/Facebook)

Backpack Buddies provides meals for children in need through partnerships across the province. In 2019, volunteers handed out packages with six meals to 1,300 children each week. In December, the organization expects to be handing out 5,000.

"We're just seeing a tremendous amount of newly vulnerable families that were not in need of our program or programs like ours back in March," King said.

To change course, Ellis said policy makers need to invest in social services, something she says will save health-care and criminal justice costs to the taxpayer in the long run.

 "We need a really multifaceted and nuanced suite of public policy inventions that are income-based to truly tackle the crisis," she said.

Teri Mooring, president of the B.C. Teachers' Federation, says the pandemic has highlighted the vulnerabilities in the system.

"School are important community hubs and have become a reliable source of food for students," Mooring said. 

"There's a number of measures that we think need to be put in place in order to ensure not only that students get what they need … but also to reduce stigma associated with food being provided at school."

One possible measure is making a school food program universal. 

"It allows schools to work with the community to look at local food being provided," she said. "[It] normalizes the fact that everyone gets fed at school and reduces the targeting and stigma."

Other recommendations from the coalition include increasing earning exemptions for people receiving government assistance or disability payments, allowing income assistance recipients to attend post-secondary studies and still receive government benefits, and improving employment standards for precarious gig workers.

Tap below to hear Viveca Ellis discuss B.C. food insecurity on CBC's The Early Edition:

With files from The Early Edition, Maryse Zeidler, On The Coast