Feed Nova Scotia had to buy food last year instead of relying on donations as inflation and the rising cost of groceries led to an increase in demand for its services, the charity's executive director told a legislative committee Wednesday.
Speaking to the public accounts committee, Nick Jennery said his organization set a record last year for the amount of food distributed, and he worries about what's to come for people in need in the province.
"What it says to me is that we're headed for a heightened crisis," Jennery told reporters following the meeting,
"We've been in crisis for a while and the work that Feed Nova Scotia does and the 140 agencies that we support, it's very short term."
Historically, new clients at food banks account for three to five per cent of traffic each month. Jennery said that figure is now more like six to seven per cent and it's even higher in the Halifax and Cape Breton regional municipalities, where it can reach up to 10 per cent.
$1M spent on food
The organization spent about $1 million on food last fiscal year and Jennery said he expects it will spend even more this year. Last year, for the first time in Feed Nova Scotia's 38-year history, it distributed more than three million kilograms of food.
Despite people's generosity, those efforts have not put a dent in the overall level of food insecurity in the province at a time when families of five or more people are showing up more often at food banks, said Jennery.
"More food is not going to be the solution," he said.
What the government must consider, said Jennery, is that people who go to food banks and kids from families who need school food programs don't live "single-issue lives." They could also be dealing with housing and legal issues, and the fact that incomes and income assistance rates have not kept pace with inflation and the cost of food.
Margo Riebe-Butt, executive director of Nourish Nova Scotia, told the committee that schools are going through their food budgets faster because of rising costs and increased demand for in-school breakfast and lunch programs.
"Children are still going hungry as programs may run less days per week or end early in the year as budgets expire," she told the all-party committee.
Urgent need for lunch program
Riebe-Butt said the need for a provincewide school lunch program "has grown in urgency" and she called on the province to lobby the federal government to make good on its commitment to create a universal school food program.
The question of food costs and food security is interconnected with the province's agricultural sector, and representatives for farmers and food researchers called on the government to find ways to strengthen and secure food supply in the province through things such as a food autonomy strategy that provides support for sector development and sustainability.
"Costs to produce food is rapidly increasing and profits are not," said Carolyn Van Den Heuvel, executive director of the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture.
Government weighing options for help
In March, the provincial government announced one-time funding to support Feed Nova Scotia and food banks, as well as one-time cheques to people who receive income assistance.
Finance Minister Allan MacMaster has since promised more help will come, but no details have not been released. MacMaster has said any further assistance would focus on the people most in need in the province.
Liberal MLA Brendan Maguire said he'd like to see the government address the situation with the same level of urgency it used to respond to concerns about a new property tax on non-Nova Scotia residents. That tax was ultimately scrapped.
In the short term, Maguire said he thinks the government should temporarily reduce the provincial portion of tax on gasoline. Longer term, he wants the government to revisit income assistance rates. The government did not increase the rates in the spring budget.
Talks with Ottawa
New Democrat Claudia Chender, who is poised to become her party's leader later this month, said the best short-term measure the government could take is to get serious about a robust food program for schools.
"If we have a public school food program, we create good jobs, we feed kids, we strengthen their educational outcomes, we address child poverty — all of that, and we can strengthen our local procurement," she said.
Tracy Taweel, deputy minister of community services, said there are ongoing talks about how school food programs can be used to address child poverty and what partnerships exist with local farmers to meet that goal.
Taweel said the province is also in talks with Ottawa about using Nova Scotia as a model for how a universal school food program could work.
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