A record number of people used food banks in Canada this year, with high inflation and low social assistance rates cited as key factors in the rise, according to a new report.
The annual report from Food Banks Canada said there were nearly 1.5 million visits to food banks in March, 15 per cent more than the same month last year and 35 per cent more than in March 2019, prior to the pandemic.
Linda Godin, a 72-year-old living on a fixed income in Edmonton, is among those who have had to turn to food banks given the rising cost of living.
"It's kind of hard sometimes to make ends meet," she told CBC News. "I try to budget as much as I can but sometimes the budgeting doesn't work."
The Food Banks Canada report is based on data from more than 4,750 food banks and community organizations.
The report said the skyrocketing cost of food and housing, as well as high inflation and low social assistance rates, have contributed to the rise in food bank usage.
"What we are seeing is the combination of long-term effects to a broken social safety net combined with the effects of inflation and high costs driving more people to use food banks than ever before in Canadian history," said Kirstin Beardsley, the CEO of Food Banks Canada.
"Behind each one of these numbers is a person who is struggling too much to get by."
Seniors, students relying more on food banks
Fixed-income groups like seniors and employed but low-income people such as students have been hit harder because their paycheques can't keep up with inflation, Beardsley said.
"We have got people like seniors, who have been able to afford to live, suddenly having to turn to the food bank for the first time in their lives because it doesn't all add up," Beardsley said.
"And students are the same; often they are on a very limited income, and so when the costs go up, the way we have seen, you just can't stretch the dollar."
Ottawa Food Bank CEO Rachael Wilson said she's seeing those same challenges playing out locally.
"Students are really struggling," she told CBC News Network. "When you look at the cost of education, as well as the cost of rent here in Ottawa — I know it's similar in Toronto and across the country. The cost of food is incredibly challenging."
The report also said that around 500,000 food bank clients — about one-third — are children, who make up around 20 per cent of the country's total population.
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Struggle to meet demand
The surge in demand has made it difficult for some food banks to keep up. The food bank at Memorial University's St. John's campus, for example, had to close temporarily because it had nothing left in stock.
"The demand over the past few months has just been more than we could have possibly predicted," said Matt Pike, the food bank's volunteer co-ordinator.
Pike said use of the campus food bank in August — about 150 clients — usually increases by 50 per cent in September as students head back to class, but this year it doubled. He said the food bank served about 300 clients in September and 360 in October before it was forced to close.
Beardsley called the report a "wake-up call" that should trigger moves to tackle food insecurity and the issues that contribute to it.
The report suggests long-term and short-term solutions, including creating a universal minimum income floor for lower-income Canadians and providing more affordable and rent-assisted housing.
It also suggests reforms are needed to employment insurance and the Canada Workers Benefit programs.
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