Food banks across the country are bracing for a “tidal wave” of new clients in the coming months, as a new report brings to light the heavy economic toll the pandemic has placed on Canadians’ shoulders.
Food Banks Canada’s HungerCount 2021 report shows that visits to food banks climbed 20 per cent nationally since the arrival of COVID-19, with one-in-four locations experiencing a 50 per cent increase in demand.
“We have a pivotal choice to make, to return to a ‘pre-pandemic’ cycle of poverty or to build a better Canada where no one goes hungry and poverty is addressed at its root causes,” said David Armour, Interim CEO of Food Banks Canada, in a news release.
“Early in the pandemic, government’s housing and income supports helped flatten demand at Canada’s food banks, but in recent months, visits are beginning to surge, with nearly one-in-seven food banks experiencing a doubling of demand — and food bank visits soaring in Quebec, Alberta, and Ontario.”
The report shows that in March, 2021, visits to food banks topped 1.3 million, the largest increase since the 2008 recession.
One-third of those accessing food banks were children, 8.7 per cent were seniors, and half were on social assistance or disability-related supports.
Although the situation has improved somewhat in Manitoba since the “lean times” early on in the pandemic, Harvest Manitoba says the national figures are consistent with what’s happening locally.
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“Before the pandemic began, Harvest Manitoba was seeing something on the order of 60,000 clients that we serve province-wide each and every month; half of those being children,” says Vince Barletta, Harvest Manitoba’s president and CEO.
“Since COVID began and in a sustained way, those numbers have been around 80,000 per month.”
Barletta says they are able to meet the demand “thanks to the generosity of Manitobans,” but right now, that support is more needed than ever.
“(There are) no signs of it letting up, and even beyond that, the numbers that we’re really watching right now are those inflation numbers,” Barletta says.
“I think anybody that goes to buy a cart-full of groceries or a tank of gas or looking at their home heating bills can attest that prices of just about everything are going up.
“And if you were an individual on a fixed income — as many people that use Harvest Manitoba’s services are — every dollar in your budget counts.”
In the Food Banks Canada report, the top reasons for accessing a food bank are listed in order as: cost of food, social assistance/benefits too low and cost of housing.
The authors make five recommendations, including a call for new supports for renters with low incomes, expanding supports for low-wage or unemployed workers, and enhanced measures specifically to address northern food insecurity.
“If there is one silver lining to the first year of the pandemic, it is that we witnessed in real-time what Food Banks Canada has been saying for years: good social policies can have a significant impact on reducing food insecurity when they address its root causes, which are low incomes and poverty,” the report reads.
“As our data has shown, the rapid introduction of the CERB (Canada Emergency Response Benefit) and other supports initially ‘flattened the curve’ of food bank use early in the pandemic in many parts of the country.”
On the flip side, the report says the percentage of people accessing food banks who identified as Indigenous was nearly cut in half between 2019 and 2021, dropping from 15 to eight per cent.
And although the total visits to food banks rose, the number of people in rural areas using their services dropped by 3.8 per cent.
Back in Manitoba, Barletta says they are always in need of food, funds and volunteers, but the need grows at this time of year.
“We really need a big push for volunteers to come into our facility and help pack those hampers, and those cash donations are incredibly important as well … to make sure families and children have what they need heading into the holidays,” Barletta says.