Alex Binkley - Food bank crisis

The Binkley Report

Food banks and soup kitchens struggling to keep up

as visits increase 26% though 2008 recession officially over
By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective

Food banks have become a fixture in Canadian cities and towns and, judging by the growing demands for their services, won’t disappear any time soon unless governments get serious about easing the plight of the poor.

That’s the inescapable conclusion of a study released by Food Banks Canada. While the 2008 recession has been declared over, the country’s 4,100 food banks and soup kitchens are busier than ever. Visits to them have risen 26% since the start of the recession, says Executive Director Katherine Schmidt.

“It is shocking that hundreds of thousands of Canadians need help from food banks each month to make ends meet,” she notes. “The level of food bank use over the past three years has grown at an alarming rate and food banks are stretched to the limit.”

This past March, there were 851,014 individuals who received food from food banks and soup kitchens. About one third were children.

Farmers and the food industry have been generous in their support, she adds. It’s time for governments to do more. “Both food banks and the people they are helping are under very high levels of stress. The situation is simply unsustainable.”

In addition to the high volume of demand, food banks are struggling with rising food prices. Statistics Canada says in September, food prices were 4.3% higher than a year ago. Meat prices were up 6.1%, bakery 7.2% and fresh veggies 13%. All indications are the upward price pressure will continue, propelled in part by higher transportation costs.

However, the group isn’t looking for action on food prices. More affordable housing would provide the biggest benefit because the families then would be able to buy sufficient food, she adds.

There’re disturbing signs in the group’s numbers — 11% of the people coming to food banks are doing so for the first time. About 20% of the families have employment income but not enough to pay for accommodation and food while 20% of the recipients are on some form of pension.

Food bank use in 2011 was 20% higher than in 2001, Schmidt notes. “While food bank use moves with the economy, there appears to be a stubborn limit to how low the need for assistance can fall,” she added. “Food banks have been helping more than 700,000 separate individuals each month for the better part of a decade, through good economic times and bad — a fact of life that the majority of Canadians find unacceptable."

Other ways governments could help is by improving employment Insurance for older workers who have lost their jobs and by helping ensure Canadian jobs are well-paying jobs. “The economic recovery is in jeopardy, and far too many people continue to struggle to make ends meet.”

Food banks aren’t an urban phenomenon. “In rural areas, 114,122 individuals — or 13% of the national total — received food from food banks; 10% of them were being helped for the first time,” says the Foodbanks Canada study.

Her group’s HungerCount 2011 survey also found that:

 --11% of those receiving food each month – 94,000 – are accessing a food bank for the first time,

--one in five individuals and families assisted by food banks have income from current or recent employment,

--20% of households helped are living on an old age or disability pension.

--half of households receiving food are families with children.

--40% of the households receiving help were composed of single people living alone.

--24% were single-parent families with children.

--12% were couples without children.

--52% reported social assistance as their primary source of income.

--13% receive disability-related income supports.

--7% live primarily on pension benefits.

--5% reported having no source of income.

“Low income, whether in the short or long term, is at the root of the persistent need for charitable food assistance in Canada,” the study observes. “Food banks began operating in the early 1980s, near the beginning of a long period of economic transformation that saw major sectors of the Canadian economy – manufacturing, forestry, farming, fishing, mining – recede as sources of jobs and income.

“Public supports for those in economic difficulty have been scaled back, with both social assistance and Employment Insurance becoming more difficult to get, and providing less to those who are eligible,” it continues. “It has become harder to find and keep a good job, and nearly impossible to afford even basic food, clothing, and adequate shelter if one is receiving government assistance for any length of time. It is an unfortunate reality that food banks have grown, by necessity, to fill the gap.”

Echoing many of the recommendations from the recent Canada Without Poverty report, the study calls “for governments to provide adequate assistance to individuals and families during times of need, and on how we can better support people to become resilient citizens.

Governments should work with “social assistance beneficiaries and other stakeholders to design an income support system of last resort that helps our most vulnerable citizens become self-sufficient. They should ensure that Canada’s most vulnerable seniors are not left to live in poverty and improve Employment Insurance to better recognize and support Canadians in non-standard forms of employment, as well as older workers facing permanent layoff from long-tenure positions.

“It is a very unsettled time in the world, and in Canada,” the study points out. “While the economic situation is not as dire as during the depths of the recession, there is a rising tide of uncertainty felt by millions of people around the globe. This has been caused by a number of factors, including the debt crises in the United States and Europe, persistent high unemployment around the world, and the struggle in high-income countries to adapt effectively to the decline of major sectors of the economy, particularly large-scale manufacturing.”

Recent figures show more than three million Canadians live in families with incomes below Canada’s unofficial poverty line. Nearly two million “worried where their next meal would come from, ate food that did not meet their dietary or cultural preferences, or skipped entire meals because of financial hardship.”

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