According to a HungerCount report published on Thursday, approximately 155,722 Albertans visited a food bank in March. Around 37.1 per cent of those visits came from children.
That is a 73 per cent increase in food bank usage since 2019, which is more than double the national rate compared to pre-pandemic levels.
On average, food bank usage rose by 35 per cent in Canada in the same period
That means 1 in 5 Albertans are experiencing food insecurity, said Arianna Scott of Food Banks Alberta.
“If this was a natural disaster like the Calgary floods or the Fort McMurray for wildfires, these numbers would have spurred a provincial and national response… We need to react to this information with a response similar to the one we have for natural disasters,” Scott said in a news conference on Thursday.
“Food costs have reached astronomical levels, the highest they’ve been in 41 years. Albertans just can’t keep up. Something has to give.”
The report also said Alberta is more likely to attribute food bank usage to unemployment and those on social assistance, but Scott said that is an oversimplified way of looking at the issue.
In fact, 19.9 per cent of those who visited a food bank in March listed “job income” as their primary source of income. Around 26.2 per cent of total food bank users reported social assistance as their primary source of income.
Only 8.2 per cent of those reported no income at all.
“We’re seeing lower unemployment rates and higher food bank visits, which indicates to us that the cost of living is overwhelming the wages being received by Albertans,” Scott said.
“How do we repair the social safety net and how do we decrease the amount of poverty in our province?”
The report also suggests that there is a discrepancy between the cost of living and income in the province. Around 11 per cent of food bank users in Alberta are homeowners compared to the national average of 7.8 per cent, the report said.
This suggests that while wages may be higher in Alberta, the cost of living in some communities in Alberta is significantly higher than in other places in the country.
Food Banks Canada also said the food insecurity crisis isn’t just an urban problem. Food banks in rural areas of Alberta are reporting higher numbers of seniors and people with disabilities accessing food banks.
Almost 60 per cent of food bank users in rural areas are receiving government assistance.
“Since we opened in 1984, this is the worst it’s ever been… We are seeing Albertans who are employed who used to be donors that are now becoming our clients,” said Susan Krescy, executive director of the St. Albert food bank.
“We are seeing individuals who are one paycheque away from homelessness. This is our reality… It’s exacerbated by the stress and uncertainty of what’s to come.”
Scott encouraged people to contact their local officials to express their concerns about the food insecurity crisis in the province. She also encouraged people to volunteer or donate to their local food bank.
“This is a provincial problem that we can’t turn away from,” she said. “I certainly think the public has the opportunity to do a couple of things to help solve this crisis.”
Premier Danielle Smith said the government is going to take “decisive action” to solve the affordability crisis in Alberta.
Speaking to United Conservative members at the party’s annual general meeting last week, Smith said the government will lower the cost of electricity and remove the provincial fuel tax, along with lowering taxes.
However, Smith did not specify what taxes she is planning to lower.
“Families should not be obliged to choose between powering their homes for the winter and providing food for their families,” Smith said during her keynote speech.
“It’s time to ensure each of you are benefitting from the (oil and gas) ownership.”
The province’s Opposition NDP said it is demanding action from the United Conservative Party government to help Albertans make ends meet.
Community and social services critic Marie Renaud said families can’t wait for subsidies to hit their bank accounts, they need relief now.
She said those who are low-income and disabled were already living below the poverty line and are falling through the cracks as inflation soars. Re-indexing Alberta Income for the Severely Handicapped benefits to match inflation rates is a good first step, Renaud said.
“(The premier) needs to be looking for a clear plan that would immediately alleviate that pressure,” Renaud said.
“It’s not just the fact that they are going to the food bank, they are living in dangerous situations. Skimping on medications, skimping on medical supplies, not eating nutritious food… It’s just this mounting pressure that has been there for years.”