Binkley on food banks

Alex Binkley is a foremost political and economic analyst, whose website is Readers will be aware that his columns in True North Perspective have foreseen political and economic developments in Canada. This week in ...
The Binkley Report
The recession may be officially over

but food banks are busier than ever

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective

18 January 2013 — Perhaps food banks are the canary in the mine for our economic system.

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 Katherine Schmidt, Executive Director of Food Banks Canada. More than 322,000 of those helped were children.

“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.”

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 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 a Foodbanks Canada study.

Food bank use in 2011 was 20% higher than in 2001, Schmidt noted. “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.”

And while the food banks welcome food donations, money works better because the food banks can lever every dollar into upwards $10 worth of food. Think of what some extra government help for pensioners and low income families would do.

“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,” the report says.

“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 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.”

Governments need to provide adequate assistance to individuals and families during times of need so they become resilient citizens, the report adds. It commends:

• Increasing federal and provincial support for the construction and rehabilitation of affordable housing, and the creation or expansion of housing subsidies;
• Working 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;
• Ensuring that Canada’s most vulnerable seniors are not left to live in poverty;
• Improving 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;
• Prioritizing, at the federal government level, the need to drastically improve the labour market outcomes of disadvantaged workers;
• Investing in a system of high-quality, affordable, accessible early learning and child care. It is a very unsettled time in the world, and in Canada.

“While the economic situation is not as dire as during the depths of the recession," The report says, "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.”