P.E.I. leads the country in food insecurity. Again.

Southern Kings and Queens Food Bank manager Norma Dingwell says some of the families using the service have income from two or even three jobs and still can't make ends meet. (Nicola MacLeod/CBC - image credit)
Southern Kings and Queens Food Bank manager Norma Dingwell says some of the families using the service have income from two or even three jobs and still can't make ends meet. (Nicola MacLeod/CBC - image credit)

Prince Edward Island is leading the country in food insecurity, and more than one-third of Island children live in homes without a stable source of healthy food, according to numbers released by Statistics Canada.

The University of Toronto compiled the data, which excludes the territories. The figures indicate food insecurity on the Island has risen dramatically in recent years.

The percentage of people not able to afford the kind of nutritious food they need rose to 23.6 per cent in 2022 compared to 17.3 per cent in 2019.

As for children, 35.1 per cent lived in food-insecure households in 2022 compared to 24.5 per cent in 2019.

In the four years from 2019 and 2022, P.E.I. led the country for food insecurity in all but one year, 2021.

Southern Kings and Queens Food Bank manager Norma Dingwell said she's not surprised at all. They've served just over 1,000 clients since the beginning of 2023, which is up 50 per cent compared to pre-pandemic numbers.

"It just breaks my heart, because nobody should be without food," she said.

It hurts.... It's just really sad that more and more people are struggling.  — Norma Dingwell, Southern Kings and Queens Food Bank

"It's very difficult to make ends meet. We have a few families that have two and three income providers and they still can't make ends meet."

Many of their new clients have never used the food bank before, she said.

"It hurts. We live in such a beautiful place that nobody should really have to struggle," Dingwell said. "It's just really sad that more and more people are struggling."

'We've had this problem for decades'

Jennifer Taylor is a food and nutrition professor at the University of Prince Edward Island, and she studies food insecurity. She, too, found the numbers disturbing though not surprising.

"I'm rather horrified because it tells me that everything we are doing right now is not enough.… It's really clear that we need to go so much further to see those numbers coming down."

Nicola MacLeod/CBC
Nicola MacLeod/CBC

Taylor said inflation has driven up the cost of everything from rent to food, and that has pushed many people who were living from paycheque to paycheque into severe food insecurity. They have become people who skip meals and likely experience hunger for financial reasons.

But that's not the whole story on P.E.I.

"We've had this problem for decades. The first food bank opened in, like, 2001," she said.

"The really frustrating thing for me is to see this going on. I've done these interviews so many times, and it's only getting worse."

'We desperately need some hard action'

In 2021, P.E.I. made history by legislating a timeline for eliminating food insecurity and poverty, with the aim of reducing food insecurity by 2025 and eradicating it altogether by 2030.

"We are so far from that. And it tells me that whatever efforts are going on, they need to take a hard look at what they're spending on those and they need to address the most vulnerable people," Taylor said.

"We desperately need some hard action."

Nicola MacLeod/CBC
Nicola MacLeod/CBC

Taylor urged the federal and provincial governments to step up with a higher minimum wage, as well as increased employment insurance and social assistance rates.

"If we want to fix the health-care system in P.E.I., we need to address poverty. And we need to stop talking about it and we need to start making some very hard decisions where money is going to go," she said.

"We have to make policy changes. It has to be legislated. We can't just get together and say, 'Let's everybody get together and try to help poor people.' Because it's pretty clear that that is not working."

Food banks, community fridges not the answer

Taylor said small-scale efforts like food banks and community fridges aren't the answer.

"The other thing that we really have to get our heads around is that all these other things that are happening in the community, they're not working," she said.

"While they can be a social support, they can maybe make a small dent in providing emergency food … these are not programs that can sustain people."

Only policy-makers have the resources to ensure that every family has access to a secure and stable source of food regardless of how much money they make, Taylor said.

"I would like to not be doing these interviews anymore.… I am hoping that this report is going to resonate with the newly elected Conservative government in Prince Edward Island."

CBC News reached out to the provincial Department of Social Development and Seniors. No one was available for an interview but in a statement the province said everyone deserves access to healthy food.

"The Department continues to support Islanders in accessing food through increases to social program rates, food program pilots and investments to local food banks … government is committed to working towards the food security targets in the Poverty Elimination Strategy Act," officials said in an email.

"Factors such as unemployment and cost of living can have a negative impact on food security data and we will continue to delve into this. The Province will continue to explore ways to support Islanders experiencing food insecurity and look forward to seeing the results of [the University of Toronto's] in depth review later this year."