WALKERTON – Statistics indicate that what is being experienced at the local food bank is on par with what’s being reported throughout rural Canada, according to Dianne Waram, manager, Walkerton and District Food Bank.
As stated in a press release on the HungerCount Report 2021, visits to Canadian food banks soared by over 20 per cent during the pandemic, topping 1.3 million visits in March 2021 – the largest increase since the 2008 recession.
One in four food banks experienced more than a 50 per cent increase in demand.
Maryanne Buehlow, treasurer of the Walkerton and District Food Bank, said that while “local numbers haven’t gone sky-high – yet – they’re going to increase; you can see it happening.”
The Food Banks Canada HungerCount Report 2021 stated that a volatile combination of high housing costs, pandemic job losses, rising food costs and an anticipated further pull-back on government supports is creating a “perfect storm” that has Canada’s food banks bracing for a “tidal wave” of new clients in the months ahead.
Buehlow said a lot of local people are surprised to learn there are “people living under the bridge and in the bush” in Walkerton. It’s due to the same high cost of housing and low incomes seen across Canada.
The landmark HungerCount report – the only research study encompassing the country’s more than 4,750 food banks and community organizations – shows the stark impact of how the pandemic is exacerbating poverty, food insecurity and hunger in Canada and advocates for long-term social programs to help low-income and unemployed Canadians weather the storm.
HungerCount 2021 reports that in March 2021, Canadians made 1.3 million visits to food banks – a 20.3 per cent increase over March 2019.
Key findings include the following:
• One third of clients are children, even though they only represent 19 per cent of the general population.
• Twenty-seven per cent of Canadians accessing food banks are on fixed incomes such as pensions or disability benefits.
• Food bank demand in larger urban centres was more likely to be attributed to job loss.
• Urban food banks were also more like to be accessed by racialized populations than food banks in other regions.
“We have a pivotal choice to make, to return to a ‘pre-pandemic’ cycle of poverty or to build a better Canada where no one goes hungry and poverty is addressed at its root causes,” said David Armour, interim CEO of Food Banks Canada.
“Early in the pandemic, government housing and income supports helped flatten demand at Canada’s food banks, but in recent months, visits are beginning to surge with nearly one-in-seven food banks experiencing doubling of demand – and food bank visits soaring in Quebec, Alberta, and Ontario,” he said.
Provinces experiencing largest increase in need compared to 2019 are Quebec – 474,000 visits, up 38 per cent, Ontario – 419,000 visits, up 23 per cent, and Alberta - 116,000 visits, up 29.6 per cent.
Social safety net
According to HungerCount 2021, the power of COVID-19 related government supports like the CERB, and housing relief measures were felt immediately at food banks and helped to temporarily flatten food bank visits by supporting vulnerable Canadians who were hit hard by the pandemic.
“Our experience during the pandemic, proves that good social policies have significant impact on reducing food insecurity when they truly address the causes of low-incomes, unemployment, housing costs and poverty,” said Kirstin Beardsley, Food Banks Canada’s chief network services officer.
Beardsley explained that Food Banks Canada is calling for five steps to repair Canada’s broken and outdated social safety nets to stem the tidal wave of increased poverty and food insecurity Canada faces in the months ahead.
HungerCount 2021 recommends new supports for renters living with low incomes.
Sixty-seven per cent of current food bank clients live in rental housing.
Forty-six per cent of Canadians now say the cost of housing is the highest obstacle in affording food – up from 21 per cent in 2020.
The government is being asked to immediately implement a national rent support program based on an expanded version of the Canada Housing Benefit so that Canadians who are struggling to afford their rent can access support while the rest of the National Housing Strategy takes effect.
The government is also being asked to modernize and expand supports for low wage and unemployed workers.
HungerCount 2021 advocates for a sweeping overhaul of Canada’s outdated EI policy, benefits and eligibility requirements – including allowing workers to retain more earnings while claiming EI, permanently expanding eligibility to include “self-employed” Canadians, the creation of a Disability Hiring Strategy – and government incentives for employers who offer a living wage.
“It’s time to build a Canada where no one is left behind. That means adopting a new approach towards a social safety net that creates a minimum income floor so that every Canadian has the supports they need to lift themselves up and move ahead,” said Beardsley, who explained that HungerCount 2021 recommends a phased approach to work with provinces to test and pilot new and progressive minimum income floor programs focused on breaking the poverty cycle.
Almost half of all people who need help from a food bank are adults who live alone. Single adults are grossly over-represented in food banks, and one-third of all single adults in Canada live in poverty. It is vital to make single, low-income, working age adults a priority consideration in all future poverty reduction measures, including an expanded and modernized EI and mental health supports to ensure that this vulnerable population is no longer left behind.
“Northern food insecurity remains a significant concern for Food Banks Canada, and we anticipate lasting pandemic impacts in the months ahead that will require thoughtful and progressive minimum income reforms, the creation of a new Northern Development and Revitalization Plan and skills training opportunities,” said Beardsley.
HungerCount 2021 also recommends collaboration with the newly formed Inuit to Crown Working Group, to initiate a comprehensive review of Nutrition North Canada to determine why the program is only minimally achieving its objectives of reducing the cost of food in the North.
HungerCount is the only national research study of food banks and other food programs in Canada – and was initiated by Food Banks Canada in 1989. The information provided by the report provides invaluable insight into the root causes of food insecurity and poverty issues in Canada.
While the Walkerton and District Food Bank has a good supply of many items, there are always gaps. The easiest way to fill them is with a cash donation, which allows food bank personnel to purchase what’s needed, often at a discount, from their suppliers.
Buehlow said the items that are in short supply right now are food supplements such as Boost and Ensure, and non-food items – facial tissue, toothbrushes and toothpaste, shampoo and conditioner, laundry detergent and dish detergent, adult incontinence briefs (male and female), and socks – all sizes.
Food items that are needed include pasta sauce, canned fruit, instant coffee, pancake mix and syrup, juice and juice boxes, canned meat and school snacks.
For more information about how you can help your local food bank meet needs in this community, or if you are in need of assistance, please call 519-881-0168.
Pauline Kerr, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Walkerton Herald Times