A report released early Tuesday morning shows a nearly 20 per cent hike in food bank visits in Alberta.
HungerCount 2016, compiled by Food Banks Canada, says 863,492 people accessed a food bank across Canada in March of this year – 10,000 more users than were recorded in March 2015.
The annual report provides a snapshot of how many Canadians are struggling to put food on the table in any given month.
A quarter of people who sought help in March 2016 were children under the age of 12, and 13 per cent were under the age of five.
While eight out of 10 provinces saw an increase in food bank reliance, Alberta remained one of the hardest-hit jurisdictions.
Food bank use in the province was up by 17 per cent year-over-year as the price of oil plummeted and job prospects dried up. Since 2008, reliance on food banks in Alberta has skyrocketed 136 per cent.
“It’s really shocking what’s happening there,” Shawn Pegg, director of policy and research with Food Banks Canada told Global News.
Saskatchewan has seen a similar increase in food bank use between 2015 and 2016. Pegg noted that it’s not just oil patch workers who are affected by a struggling energy sector.
“It’s their families, it’s other businesses who are connected to the oil patch and even businesses like grocery stores, sporting goods stores,” he said.
Pegg predicted that Newfoundland and Labrador, where many energy sector workers have returned home, could see an increase in food bank use reflected in next year’s report.
Nova Scotia is already experiencing those effects, he said, and they’ve been compounded by high unemployment and cuts to social assistance programs. Food banks in the province saw a 20 per cent increase in visits between March 2015 and March 2016.
Meanwhile, newly arrived Syrian refugees have also been forced to reach out for help.
HungerCount 2016 bears out the anecdotal evidence that surfaced last winter, said Pegg, confirming that new arrivals are facing the same economic hardships as many other low-income Canadians.
In Surrey, B.C., which welcomed hundreds of Syrians last winter, the local food bank saw a 17 per cent increase in demand. The report states that refugees played “a big part” in the jump.
“They are facing a very difficult economy, a very difficult job market,” said Pegg. “Many refugees land in large urban centres where the cost of housing can be very high.”
Overall, however, immigrants and refugees make up only about 13 per cent of food bank users across the country.
Pegg noted that the vast majority of people will exhaust just about every other option – from selling their possessions to seeking out pay-day loans — before resorting to a food bank.
So what can be done?
HungerCount 2016 makes a series of recommendations, including:
– Getting a national poverty reduction strategy tabled in Parliament no later than Oct. 1, 2017
– Allowing Canadians on social assistance to earn higher levels of income without seeing their benefits reduced
– Making sure people aren’t completely penniless before they are allowed to ask the government for help
The major recommendation, however, is to implement a guaranteed minimum income program across the country within the next five years.
The current social assistance structure is invasive, stigmatizing and traps people in poverty, the report argues.
“Our system of social supports was designed for the 1980s,” Pegg said.
Ontario’s provincial government recently announced plans to consult the public on a guaranteed-income pilot project. (bw/with files from Global News)