Hunger Count: Food bank demand surges in Alberta

Edmonton charities are being “pushed to the limit” as a growing number of Albertans struggle to put food on the table, a new report says.

'We are that emotional barometer for the community'

Edmonton's Food Bank reached a peak in the month of May, when it served 25,000 people. (CBC)

Edmonton charities are being "pushed to the limit" as a growing number of Albertans struggle to put food on the table, a new report says.

During the month of March 2016, 79,293 Albertans relied on food banks — the largest number of people to visit Alberta food banks since Canada's first food bank was established in Edmonton in 1980.

The March 2016 Alberta food-bank usage was up 17.6 per cent from the same month in 2015, and up 31 per cent from March 2014, according to the HungerCount 2016 report from Food Banks Canada, released Tuesday.

Eighty per cent of food banks in Alberta reported an increase in demand this year, but HungerCount says Edmonton is in a unique position.

In the wake of plunging oil prices, the city's unemployment rate grew from 4 .9 per cent in March 2014 to 6.9 per cent March of 2016. HungerCount says this led to a "massive" increase in food bank use.

"What sets Edmonton apart is the thousands of people who flocked to the city in May to escape the wildfires further north," the report says.

"This short-term crisis and dislocation, combined with a severe lack of affordable housing and an inadequate safety net for jobless Albertans, have pushed the city's charitable sector to the limits."

The annual report provides a snapshot of how many Canadians are relying on food banks. Across the country, 863,492 people accessed a food bank in March — 10,000 more than in March 2015.

While eight out of 10 provinces saw an increase in food bank reliance, Alberta remains one of the hardest-hit jurisdictions.

Since 2008, reliance on food banks in Alberta has skyrocketed 136 per cent.

Last year in Alberta, 49 per cent of food bank users were women, 33 per cent were Aboriginal, five per cent were refugees and nearly 40 per cent were children.

'So many faces'

"We are that emotional barometer for the community about what's happening [in every] good times, bad times kind of scenario," said Tamisan Bencz-Knight, a spokesperson with the Edmonton food bank.

"Behind every percent it's a person. More than one person, it's a family, it's a child, it's a co-worker, it's somebody that is struggling.

"So you can say anything you want with percentages or numbers, it looks so crazy. It's the people behind it, there are so many faces."

Bencz-Knight says the food bank has been overwhelmed. Job losses spurred by the economic downturn were already putting pressure on their finances. An influx of wildfire evacuees this spring only made the situation worse.

Bencz-Knight worries about the food bank's continued financial stability if demand continues to outstrip supply.

If seasonal fundraising campaigns fail to keep pace with the increase in clients, the organization will be in for tough year.

"We remain open all year long and we do have to make sure that we bring in these foods and funds right now because it will set the tone for 2017," she said.

"If it is an absolute flop for us at Christmas, both financially and food-wise, that will really show us what we're in for in 2017," said Bencz-Knight.

"It's not to say that the community hasn't been helping us, because they have. But it is going out faster than it's coming in."

With files from Emily Fitzpatrick