Food bank use on the rise in Canada, with 'drastic' surges in Nova Scotia, territories

Food bank use in Canada is on the rise, and some provinces and territories have seen "drastic" surges in use since last year, a new report says.

Food Banks Canada calls for national basic income to combat growing hunger problem

Except in Ontario and Manitoba, food bank use has increased across the country. (Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty)

Food bank use in Canada is on the rise, and some provinces and territories have seen "drastic" surges in use since last year, a new report says.

In March 2016, 863,492 people received food from a food bank in Canada, up 1.3 per cent from the same time last year, and 28 per cent from March 2008, according to the Hunger Count 2016 report from Food Banks Canada.

Every province had an increase except Ontario and Manitoba, and some saw double-digit spikes.
A forklift backs up with crates of food for Feed Nova Scotia, the organization that distributes to 147 food banks across the province. (CBC)

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.

"If I look at what the team is telling us, we cannot feed ourselves out of this crisis — we can't do it," said Nick Jennery of Feed Nova Scotia, the organization that distributes food to the province's 147 food banks.

As the number of hungry Canadians rises, refugees are adding to the count, Jennery said.

"They are a big challenge for at least three food banks that we support," he said. "Those food banks have seen almost double the number of clients."

Spike in rural use

Still, he cautions that's just one small piece of the puzzle regarding hunger across the country. 

Rural areas, where there are far fewer refugees, have seen a 2.3 per cent increase in food bank use from last year — much of it from Indigenous and elderly people. 

Canadians living on pensions accounted for eight per cent of food bank use nationally, but that number rises to 10 per cent in rural areas.

First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people accounted for 14 per cent of people receiving food nationally in March 2016, but made up 29 per cent in rural areas and more than 70 per cent in Northern Canada.

Food prices are a major factor in the North. In Nunavut, food costs are up to three times the national average

Hungry children

Children account for 35 per cent of users across the country.

Single people make up half the food bank use, and lone-parent households account for 22 per cent, even though they only make up 10 per cent of Canadian households.

"It is well-documented that people prefer not to access food banks — they exhaust other avenues of support before taking that step," the report reads, noting that people often go into debt, sell their belongings, skip their bills or even go hungry rather than ask for help.

"These coping mechanisms can be more difficult for families with children — some sacrifices just aren't possible when kids are involved."

'How did you get to this point?'

Many food bank clients feel stigma about accepting the help — so much so that a man who volunteers at Eastview Neighbourhood Community Centre in Toronto but also uses the food bank there asked CBC News not to use his name. He fears being identified could jeopardize his hopes of returning to work in the non-profit sector. 

The pantry for the food bank at Toronto's Eastview Neighbourhood Community Centre serves about 200 people a week, staff estimate. One of the volunteers at the centre, who also uses the food bank, says many clients feel stigma about using the service. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

The man, who worked in community development and social justice before becoming ill more than 10 years ago, is currently on Ontario disability support and remembers the first time he went to a food bank. 

"It was very, very emotional," he told CBC News. "It was very humiliating, in many ways for my sense of who I was."

"You sort of question who you are, how did you get to this point?"

Calls for basic income

Food Bank Canada recommends creating a national basic income to curb the "unacceptably high" reliance on food banks. 

Also known as a guaranteed minimum income, basic income is a social policy that would supplant various welfare programs by providing a baseline amount of money to all citizens, regardless of whether they work or meet a means test.

The report calls it "an alternative to Canada's existing last-resort income system (variously known as welfare, social assistance, income assistance, etc.), in which people facing hard times are forced to open every corner of their lives to an invasive government bureaucracy just to access a grossly inadequate monthly income."

Ontario has recently announced a basic income pilot program, while Quebec has expressed interest in studying the feasibility of one. 

Jennery wants governments, non-governmental organizations and businesses to have an engaged conversation about economic issues and the price of food.

"It means looking at those numbers, frankly, with expertise that we don't have and understanding how we get people to a better place," he said. 

It's important for people to realize that being forced to turn to food banks for help can happen to anyone, said the volunteer and client at the community centre in Toronto.

"It's not exclusive to someone in a particular situation, or someone that lives in a particular postal code, or someone who has a particular level of education," he said. "This is impacting many, many people across the spectrum."

With files from Stephen Puddicombe and Nicole Ireland