Food bank use at ‘crisis level’ in Canada’s West

Food bank use at ‘crisis level’ in Canada’s West

Prior to falling on hard times, Cory Vo had already built a relationship with the Calgary Inter-faith Food Bank.

“I’d come there many times as a donor and volunteer, sitting on the other side of the counter giving out food doing a fundraiser or food drive,” says the 35-year-old Calgarian. “It’s a humbling experience when you come back and say, hey, I helped them in the past and now they’re helping me here.”

Vo first visited the food bank for assistance in 2012 while he was struggling to find a job after returning form overseas.

“I had a family to support – my parents, my wife at the time – they were all newcomers to the country,” he says. “I was basically the only income earner in the household so there was a lot of pressure on me to put meals on the table.”

He was able to find employment in the oil and gas industry but was let go again in 2014 when the industry took a hit. With a newborn at home, he saw no other option but to return to the food bank once again.

Vo rebounded and found a job in the oil and gas industry again on the marketing side but was laid off in September so he decided enough was enough, that he’d focus his efforts on his DJ and events services business Total Entertainment YYC. Running events for food banks has proved to be a key part of his business.

“I love it but the pay is sporadic, I’m supporting my little girl and my parents,” he says. “Calgary as a whole is in a bit of a tough spot right now.”

Alberta sees massive increase in number of food bank users

According to Food Banks Canada’s HungerCount, food banks in Alberta assisted 67,443 people in March 2015, 41.2 per cent of them children. It’s a 23.4 per cent increase from last year, the country’s highest.

“In the West it’s kind of crisis level,” says Shawn Pegg, director of research and policy at the charity. “In Alberta this year, 75 per cent of food banks reported an increase.”

The last time the province saw that sort of an increase was 2010, two years after the recession.

“I would say the fact that we’re seven years past the recession and we still have more than 850,000 thousand people in Canada accessing a food bank each month is pretty stunning,” he says. “The fact that we’re still 26 per cent higher than in 2008 is a huge deal – that’s 175,000 more people each and every month accessing food banks than in 2008.”

Single male users on the rise

Pegg says a standout was the single individuals group, which continues to grow, making up 46 per cent of households assisted by food banks. It’s part of a gradual increase from 30 per cent in 2001.

“There has been very little change in government support for single people and if you’re a single person who lives alone and is a bit older, let’s say over 45, you’re kind of stuck in a lot of ways with social assistance,” he says. “That’s true whether you’re a senior or not – there’s a belief that we’ve solved poverty amongst seniors in Canada but almost a third of single seniors live in poverty.”

According to the report, nearly two million seniors receive the Guaranteed Income Supplement and live on about $17,000 per year. Seven per cent of households accessing food banks live off a pension.

Contrast that with the more than one million people in Canada who receive social assistance and live on an average of $8,035 per year. That number jumps to $23,783 per year for a family of four.

46 per cent of those households that tap into food banks are on social assistance.

“In 2012 almost 200,000 families couldn’t feed their children a balanced meal, they didn’t have enough money to purchase the food that would have brought balance to their diet,” says Pegg. “What a lot of people do is buy as much cheap food as they can get so they might not buy a good cereal or oatmeal or vegetables or expensive vegetables or fruit that is out of season.”

According to Food Banks Canada, 18,000 households were forced to reduce the size of their children’s meals because they didn’t have enough food and 200,000 Canadian adults actually lost weight because they couldn’t afford to buy food.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, a professor at the University of Guelph’s Food Institute, calls the HungerCount finding’s “heartbreaking” but says that food banks are improving how they serve the needs of Canadians.

“What I’ve found over the last few years is food banks are getting better at other things that are bringing people to visit them like wellness and mental health,” he says.

Canada’s North still struggling with high food costs

One element Charlebois feels could use a little re-vamp is the Nutrition North program, echoing Food Bank Canada’s call in November for expansion of the retail subsidy program geared towards making food less expensive in the North.

The Northern Territories are highly vulnerable to higher food prices, explains Charlebois adding that the new Liberal government promised $40 million over four years to support Nutrition North.

“A more efficient approach is to equally disburse funds among individuals and consumers who need affordable food products instead of just funneling funds into the distribution system, which was the approach a few years ago,” he says. “What you find out in the North is there are a lot of unhealthy products offered to people and they’re cheaper calories but not very good products, not very good for people’s health.”

But overall, Charlebois says he thinks food banks will continue to have a role to play in social assistance.

“I’ve always believed that food banks are perceived as an option of last resort,” he says. “Pride and shame – these are things that aren’t visible but do effect the psyche of individuals when they line up to get food donated to them but food banks are actually working on these intangibles a lot more than ever before.”

Vo agrees saying that the food bank he went to treated whim with respect and dignity.

“That’s what I’m impressed with, they treat everyone equally,” he says.

And although his business is picking up, he won’t forget the assistance he received in the midst of hard times.

“I made a pledge to myself that when I found work again, this is the organization that I would support locally,” he says. “It’s a continuous cycle.”