Food bank need jumps across N.L., ending years-long trend
After six years of near-consistent decline, food bank usage has jumped in Newfoundland and Labrador.
A higher proportion of provincial residents took donations from a food bank in 2016 than in 2015, according to a national report released in November. It's the first year since 2010 that a bigger slice of the province needed the help of a food bank to get by than in the previous year.
Just about five per cent of the provincial population was helped by by a food bank this year, compared with 4.76 per cent in 2015. The percentage increase translates to 1,300 more hungry people at food banks in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Usage was measured in March 2016 by Food Banks Canada in its annual Hunger Count report.
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The group says 60 per cent of food banks in Newfoundland and Labrador saw more need.
Eg Walters, the general manager of the Community Food Sharing Association in St. John's, says there were multiple causes for the hike in 2016 — and the signs for next year aren't much better.
"It's based on the economy," he said from the association's Mount Pearl warehouse. "There was a lot of people came back from Fort McMurray. There's been layoffs in the oil industry. And certainly the downturn of the economy in Newfoundland and Labrador has got a fair bit to do with it as well."
Walters says with business closures in St. John's and layoffs across the province, "It's not hard to figure out that we will have an increase next year as well."
The increase in 2016 means the end of a longer-term trend that saw food bank use fall from 30,000 Newfoundlanders and Labradorians in 2009 and 2010 to 25,000 in 2015.
Walters says there's "always concern" about the future.
"You just have to have faith in the economy and that the economy will hold, that the government will be able to do things that will create employment," he said.
Leading the country
At five per cent of the provincial population, food bank usage is higher in Newfoundland and Labrador than in any other province. That's been true every year since 2008, save 2015.
Dan Meades, an anti-poverty advocate and a coordinator with the Transition House Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, says that's partly because food is just more expensive in the province.
"We live on this little island in the North Atlantic, and it's really expensive to get things here," he says. "So our food costs are higher, and that puts people in a very difficult situation."
Another reason, he says, is that he describes the province as having a high — and growing — rate of poverty.
Meades says poverty rates are directly affected by government decisions, and says big government spending on welfare could cut poverty in the province.
"They should change the way they think about social assistance rates," he says.
"Government should really be indexing social assistance rates to a poverty line, and then anybody on social assistance wouldn't be living in poverty. They wouldn't need access to the food bank."
Portrait of hunger
Almost 70 per cent of Newfoundland and Labrador food bank users are receiving government social assistance, according to the HungerCount report.
Walters says it's near impossible to adequately feed yourself, or a family, on Newfoundland and Labrador's welfare payments.
Another 12.7 per cent of food bank users are relying on employment insurance. Just over nine per cent report that employment income is their primary income source.
A full 37 per cent of food bank users are children, 57 per cent are women, and 12.7 per cent are Aboriginal.
The vast majority live in social housing or rental housing.
At more than 26,000 users, Walters says food bank use in Newfoundland and Labrador is pervasive.
"It really could be your next door neighbour and you really wouldn't know who it is."