PV Vancouver Bureau
Despite the hype in the big business media about the so-called “economic recovery,” hundreds of thousands of Canadians face a hungry holiday season and a long cold winter. That’s the only possible conclusion from the latest HungerCount report on food bank use in Canada, and economic indicators which peg the “official” jobless numbers at over 1.5 million.
The HungerCount 2010 report, released Nov. 16 in Ottawa, is based on detailed surveys of food banks across Canada. The report shows a 28% rise in food bank visits over the last two years – the largest increase on record. Nearly half of all people needing food bank assistance are children or pensioners.
The rapid jump in food bank use since the capitalist economic crisis broke out in 2008 follows four previous years of decline. Every province has seen an increase in the number of individuals requiring help, and nearly three-quarters of all Canadian food banks helped more people this year than in 2009.
The report shows that the effects of the recession are still being felt across the country. Last March, the month used as an annual baseline for data collection, 80,150 people accessed a food bank for the first time. Since March is a typical month for food banks, this indicates that more than 80,000 people walk through the door of a food bank for the first time every single month.
Here are some of the facts and figures which jump out from the HungerCount report:
* The need for food assistance increased almost across the spectrum this year: food banks saw more adults, children, and youth; more families with children and more single people; more women and men; more Aboriginal people; more seniors; more people with disabilities.
* In March 2010, 867,948 individuals were assisted by a food bank, an increase of 9.2% over March 2009, on top of an 18% jump the previous March. This is the highest level on record, passing the previous benchmark of 803,335 in 2004.
* Every province saw a swell in the need for food banks, with the highest increases in Manitoba (21%) and Saskatchewan (20%). While a large portion of the increase in these provinces was concentrated in Saskatoon, Regina, and Winnipeg, smaller food banks also saw demand for their services rise significantly in 2010.
* Food banks in Prince Edward Island, Quebec, and Nova Scotia also reported larger than average increases over 2009 (13%, 12%, and 11%, respectively).
* Of those who access food banks, 38% are children or youth under age 18; 51% of assisted households are families with children, and nearly half of these are two‑parent families.
* Those under age 18 saw especially high representation in the prairie provinces: 51% of food bank clients in Manitoba, 44% in Saskatchewan, and 43% in Alberta.
* The number of seniors helped by food banks rose suddenly, from 5.5% of adults in 2008 and 2009 to 7.2% in 2010. The proportion of seniors was highest in Ontario (12%) and Manitoba (15%).
* 40% of food bank clients are single‑person households, many of them counting social assistance as their primary source of income.
* Households with income from employment account for 17% of the total – the “working poor” who earn poverty-level wages.
* The number of food banks users who identify as First Nations, Métis, or Inuit has increased from 10.8% of the total in 2008, to 11.6% in 2009 and 12% in 2010. The overall number of Aboriginal people accessing food assistance programs grew by 26% in 2009, and again by 13% in 2010.
* Each month, between 81,000 and 84,000 new Canadians are assisted, accounting for 9% of the total in 2010.
Often seen as an “urban problem,” hunger is also a very real issue in small towns and rural areas. Forty‑five percent of the food banks surveyed by the 2010 HungerCount are located in municipalities with fewer than 10,000 people. These 597 organizations assisted 123,777 individuals – 14% of the total, up from 11% in 2009 – in March 2010. Almost 10% of these people (12,180) were being helped for the first time.
Facing a second consecutive year of increased need, the food banks say that the ability to acquire enough food remains their top challenge. Those which report buying more food than usual are 57%, up from 32% in 2008, prior to the recession. Half of all food banks had to cut back on the amount of food provided to each household in 2010. Twelve percent of food banks actually turned away individuals and families asking for help, something that was rare in past years. Six percent were forced to close early, or simply did not open during their regular hours.
Nearly one-third of food banks have made special appeals through the media this year, and the majority have looked for help from corporations, faith communities, service organizations, and other food banks. Even after taking these measures, an astonishing 35% of food banks reported running out of food in 2010.
First launched during the recession of the early 1980s, food banks were already providing assistance to nearly 400,000 Canadians each month by 1989. During the past decade, that number has grown to over 700,000 per month, and now well over the 800,000 figure in 2010.
These rising numbers have long been the source of debate among anti-poverty movements. Many social justice activists argue that while food banks provide immediate assistance to hungry people, they also make it easier for governments to cut social assistance rates and eligibility by transferring responsibility for tackling poverty to the private sector, churches, and individual donors.
Food bank operators have countered that while such arguments are valid, they have a moral responsibility to feed the hungry while continuing to pressure governments for improved social assistance.
After nearly three decades, a pattern has become obvious. Food banks have become institutionalized, a significant replacement for part of Canada’s shredded social safety net.
However, HungerCount does make a sharp critique of official policies, pointing out that despite the slow rate of economic recovery, “federal and provincial governments are already planning to end stimulus programs, cut spending, and shrink their accumulated debts. It is crucial that they consider their next moves carefully, in light of both the economic issues that have plagued Canadians since the advent of food banks in the 1980s, and the lasting damage faced by individuals and families in this uncertain time.”
The number of low-income people living in Canada, the report points out, has not dropped below 2.7 million in many years. Despite overall economic growth, middle-income earners take home no more now than during the 1980s, and those in the lowest income brackets actually earn less than 30 years ago.
“The manufacturing, forestry, mining, agriculture, and fishing industries have all been weakened, and are able to provide a decent living for fewer and fewer Canadians,” says the report, which argues that the health and social consequences of low income are extremely expensive in the long run. It notes that “losses related to health care expenditures, the justice system, social assistance, and foregone tax revenue stemming from the effects of low income have been estimated at $24.4 billion annually.”
The report calls on governments “to create long‑term strategies for preventing and reducing poverty, hunger, and food bank use in Canada. These strategies must be integrated, and they must take account of the experiences of low‑income Canadians, and of the changing nature of the economy and the labour market.”