'Face of food bank use is changing' as almost 1 in 4 getting help are now employed: Harvest Manitoba

Nearly one in every four people who responded to a recent Harvest Manitoba survey needed to use the organization’s food bank this year even though they had a job — a jump of 50 per cent in that figure since last year.

Monthly food bank users in Manitoba now include more than 15,000 kids, new report says

A woman picks up items from containers filled with toiletries.
Karren Ivarra says said Harvest Manitoba has been a huge source of support for her and husband. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Nearly one in every four people who used Harvest Manitoba's food bank recently said they had to turn to the organization for help even though they had a job — a figure that's jumped 50 per cent since last year.

That's according to a recent survey of Harvest Manitoba clients, the results of which are part of a new report called Harvest Voices: Stories of Hunger and Poverty in Manitoba, released Thursday.

This year, 24 per cent of people surveyed said they were employed — up from 16 per cent in 2021.

Nearly half of those employed people — 43 per cent — were working full time, the report says.

"It says to me that in some ways the face of food bank use is changing in Winnipeg, it's changing in Manitoba" as high inflation challenges low-wage earners, said Vince Barletta, president and chief executive officer of Harvest Manitoba.

Staff and volunteers at Harvest Manitoba surveyed adults who registered for support from food banks within the Harvest Community Food Network, the report says. A total of 395 surveys were completed either by phone, in person or online from August to October 2022.

Respondents said their jobs included positions such as servers, cooks, child-care workers, health-care aides and retail workers, the report said.

More kids, Indigenous people using food banks

The report also notes a record number of children using food banks in the province: more than 15,000 a month. That's up from about 11,000 last October, Harvest Manitoba spokesperson Christa Campbell said in an email.

That jump is likely in part because more families, even those with two incomes, are struggling to make ends meet as the rising cost of living pushes many "to the brink," Barletta said.

A man in a warehouse stands in front of a row of bins and boxes. He reaches toward one with a can of food in his hand.
Vince Barletta, president and CEO of Harvest Manitoba, packs hampers with food at the food bank warehouse in Winnipeg on Nov. 17, 2022. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

But it's also partly because of the sheer increase in the number of food bank users, he said. The report notes that figure has doubled since 2019, while Barletta said it rose 40 per cent since last year — the highest year-over-year increase the organization has ever seen. 

"And so with those dramatic increases, we're seeing a larger number of children get caught up in food bank use as well," he said.

Indigenous people are also making up an increasing proportion of those using food banks in Manitoba, at more than 41 per cent. That's significant considering they only make up about 18 per cent of Manitoba's population and 12 per cent of Winnipeg's, the report said, citing census data.

Barletta said that's in part because of the high rates of poverty, especially among kids, that Indigenous people experience in Manitoba. 

But the number of Indigenous people using Harvest Manitoba's services is also rising because the organization is doing more to reach out to groups including First Nations in northern Manitoba, he said.

Students, disabled people hit hard

The report cited research that found post-secondary students are at least three times more likely to experience food insecurity than the general population — something Karren Ivarra knows first-hand.

Ivarra, who arrived in Winnipeg from Mexico a year ago and now studies business administration at Red River College Polytechnic, said Harvest Manitoba has been a huge source of support for her and husband.

"This is a good place to pick up some groceries — because my husband and I, we need some help," she said recently at Harvest's new food bank at its Winnipeg Avenue headquarters.

Without that help, Ivarra said it would be difficult to keep up with the cost of items like bread, milk and even toothpaste, along with having to pay for rent and tuition.

Over 60 per cent of survey respondents also said they had a disability or health condition, and most said it prevented them from working, the new report said.

It also noted that while the cost of living has climbed steadily, Manitoba's employment and income assistance benefits rates have remained relatively unchanged for two decades.

That means a tight budget for people like Brad Bennett, who started volunteering with Harvest Manitoba in 2015 after a heart attack left him on disability assistance and mostly home by himself for a decade. 

A man in a bright safety vest smiles.
Brad Bennett started volunteering with Harvest Manitoba in 2015. The organization has also helped him afford to put food on the table. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

The volunteer work has helped him maintain his social skills, he said, but the organization has also helped him to put food on the table.

"It could be the difference between eating and not eating. The amount of money you get on disability does not come even close to what the new rising prices are," Bennett said.

Barletta said while demand for Harvest Manitoba's services is rising, the solution isn't more food banks. It's getting more money to those who need it — which is what he hopes people take away from the report, he said.

"The reality is, the way we're going to solve hunger issues, poverty issues and food security issues in this country is getting additional income to people who need it so that they can make their own choices in their lives."

With files from Cory Funk and Caitlyn Gowriluk