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Albertans, refugees increasingly relying on food banks: report

Click to play video: 'Alberta food bank usage is surging' Alberta food bank usage is surging
WATCH ABOVE: The numbers are in and they're not good. Food bank usage in Alberta is up nearly 18 per cent from last year and the situation in Edmonton is even worse. Sarah Kraus reports – Nov 15, 2016

Alberta has seen a nearly 20 per cent increase in food bank visits in the last year, according to a report made public early Tuesday, and newly arrived refugees are also struggling to make ends meet.

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.

WATCH: Edmonton’s Food Bank struggling to keep food on the shelves

Click to play video: 'Edmonton’s Food Bank struggling to keep food on the shelves' Edmonton’s Food Bank struggling to keep food on the shelves
Edmonton’s Food Bank struggling to keep food on the shelves – Oct 19, 2016

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.

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While eight out of 10 provinces saw an increase in food bank reliance, Alberta remained one of the hardest-hit jurisdictions.

WATCH: Kim Smith introduces us to a single Calgary father of two boys who’s struggling to put food on the table.
Click to play video: 'Calgary dad relies on food bank to provide for family' Calgary dad relies on food bank to provide for family
Calgary dad relies on food bank to provide for family – Nov 15, 2016

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.

READ MORE: Nearly a quarter of Canadians worry about being able to pay for groceries

“It’s really shocking what’s happening there,” said Shawn Pegg, director of policy and research with Food Banks Canada.

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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.

Refugees

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.

READ MORE: Refugee use of food banks could be ‘cultural,’ says John McCallum

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.

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“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.

Guaranteed income

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.

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READ MORE: Canadians support guaranteed income, but think it will make us lazy

“Our system of social supports was designed for the 1980s,” Pegg said.

“The labour market has changed, people’s access to well-paying jobs has decreased significantly, yet government programs to support people have changed hardly at all.”

Ontario’s provincial government recently announced plans to consult the public on a guaranteed-income pilot project.

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