Record number of Canadians using food banks: 'Incomes ... not keeping pace with that high cost of living'

Across Canada, food banks are struggling to meet increased demand

Food Banks Canada released its first-ever poverty report card on Tuesday, assigning provinces, territories, and the government letter grades based on food insecurity rates, poverty reduction, the price of housing, and more.

The majority of provinces and territories received poor ratings on the report card, with N.S. receiving the lowest grade of F and Quebec scoring highest with a B-.

The report card comes at a time when Canada is experiencing record-breaking usage of food banks, according to Kirstin Beardsley, CEO of Food Banks Canada.

As a crucial example, The Daily Bread Food Bank, a food bank in Toronto, has gone from serving 65,000 clients pre-pandemic to 274,000 clients this August.

“Incomes are not keeping pace with that high cost of living, so we're seeing more and more people struggling to make ends meet and turning to a food bank," Talia Bronstein, Vice President of Research and Advocacy at the Daily Bread Food Bank, says.

"We're seeing more people who are employed coming to the food bank because again, they just aren't able to afford their basic necessities. We're proud that we've managed to ensure that regardless of how many clients come through our doors, every single person has had the same level of service as before the pandemic.”

Bronstein says while they did not have to turn anyone away so far or reduce the quantity of the food, times have still been tough.

“It's been a challenge to get there. And we're really fortunate that the community has time and time again supported our work with their generosity.”

We're seeing more people who are employed coming to the food bank because again, they just aren't able to afford their basic necessities.

Peter McKee Community Food Centre, one of the largest food banks in N.B., has also been facing issues regarding interactions in the food bank and increasing, challenging demands.

Christine Taylor, the general manager of the bank says there have been a few incidents at the centre.

“Due to the increase in clients using the food bank, it takes longer to process clients in the database, the waiting area is often congested with clients, and threats of violence against volunteers, staff and clients have increased,” Taylor says. The food bank has had to hire a security guard full-time due to safety concerns.

According to the study done by Food Banks Canada, nearly one-third of Canadians said their standard of living is inadequate, and more than 42 per cent feel their financial situation has gotten worse since last year. One of the groups hit hardest is kids under the age of 18.

“Unfortunately, our biggest demographic right now are school-age children,” says Jody Williams, the Executive Director for Bridges to Hope in Saint John’s, N.L.

According to Williams, the bank had 344 children visiting in August compared to 200 just one year prior.

“One of the things we do for them is provide healthy snacks because a lot of kids have access to healthier food during school, and then when they get home and on the weekends they typically don't.”

Bridges to Hope has also seen a big drop in food donations from the community since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and now has to pay out of pocket, from monetary donations and grants, for many of their supplies and services.

“Before COVID-19, 80 per cent of our food was donated, and now I'd say 5 per cent of our food is donated,” Williams says.

However, according to Williams most of the food banks including Bridges to Hope, have been planning for these times since the pandemic.

“Donations got really good and there was more government help than ever. So a lot of food banks had kind of more money in the bank coming out of COVID-19, but most of us had the foresight and all projections were still headed towards a recession,” he says.

"Every month we are spending more than we're bringing in, that's been going on for two years straight. We just happen to have a bit of money that we were drawing from but that money is not going to last. The next three years are really concerning," Williams says.

“Basically now every food bank every month is going in the red and drying upon these reserves they have built up.”

How can we help food banks in Canada?

While there is no apparent solution to the crisis food banks are facing across Canada, Melissa From, the President and CEO of the Calgary Food Bank, offers some guidance on how things can get better.

“One, of course, is having conversations with elected officials ... at the municipal, provincial, and federal levels to say, ‘How can we work together to solve some of these greater issues?’” From says.

“And then the other piece is having conversations with the food industry to say, ‘How can we help you to mitigate your wasted food that maybe isn't suitable to be on the shelf of a grocery store, but certainly could still be consumed by someone?’”

From says the key is to approach the issue as a partnership or a collaboration at all levels.

“Bringing in government, having us in the nonprofit sector and having other food serving agencies that we collaborate with and work with working together, and then also bringing in industry.”