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Volunteers at the Great Vancouver Food Bank sort incoming donations at a warehouse on Oct. 25. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Volunteers at the Great Vancouver Food Bank sort incoming donations at a warehouse on Oct. 25. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Surveying Need

Stretched food banks a measure of Canada's frail recovery Add to ...

The number of Canadians using food banks has declined slightly, but persistent demand indicates many are struggling in a frail economic recovery.

More than 851,000 individuals visited a food bank in March alone, a number that’s little changed from last year’s record and still 26 per cent above prerecession levels, Food Banks Canada’s annual survey, to be released Tuesday, shows.

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The findings reveal that recipients span the spectrum. Nearly 100,000 of them are first-time users and one in five actually has a job or has recently been employed. More than one in ten are immigrants or refugees – many of whom are highly educated, and usage is growing among seniors.

“We think we’re coming out of a recession, but this is telling us that many Canadians are still really struggling,” said Katharine Schmidt, executive director of the association.

Food-bank usage is one of the more tangible measures of how society is faring. It’s worth paying attention to because it gives a “true depiction” of the challenges that low-income people are facing, said Craig Alexander, chief economist at Toronto-Dominion Bank.

Increased usage reflects a number of shifts in the economy, he said. While the number of jobs lost in the recession has been recouped, many new positions aren’t as well-paid as the former ones. Wage growth has not kept pace with inflation. Globalization, outsourcing and technological changes have eliminated many middle-skilled, middle-income jobs. And displaced factory workers are having trouble re-entering the work force.

“One of the underlying stories that gets missed by the fact that Canada is doing better than many of its peers is that we have pressures for many low-income people, and not everyone is benefiting equally from the economic recovery,” Mr. Alexander said.

The findings show 18 per cent of food-bank recipients are part of the working poor – people who have earnings from a current or recent job.

Chris Kozloff, 48, falls into that boat. The resident of Kakabeka Falls in northern Ontario lives in a household of six, including her two children. Both she and her husband are employed – she works full-time in a Zellers shoe department. But it pays little more than minimum wage. Rising food and gasoline prices are eating into her family’s budget, forcing her to rely on the local food bank.

“There is such a big need out there, and it’s only increasing,” she said.

In Edmonton, John Kaliel is also squeezed. He spent nearly 40 years in the telecom industry, but broke his leg on the job several years ago. Since then, he’s had to rely on a disability payout of $585 a month plus a small pension. The 59-year-old pays $420 in rent, leaving little left over for basics such as medicine, clothing – and food.

“I’m hoping to go back to work,” he said, once his knee improves. “But at my age, it’s hard to start something new.”

Like others, he is struck by the broad range of people he sees while in the two-hour lineup to receive groceries. The survey’s stats back that up: Almost half of recipients are women and girls. One in ten is aboriginal. One in four are individuals from dual-parent families with kids. Seven per cent are homeowners and 4 per cent are post-secondary students.

Donations have not kept pace with increased pressures on food banks, Ms. Schmidt said. Half of the agencies provided less food to each household than before because they’re trying to stretch their resources. One in three said they didn’t have enough food this year. Thirty per cent said they ran out of funds. High gas prices are driving up transportation costs and some food banks that have to buy food to fill gaps in donated goods are feeling the pinch of rising prices.

Food banks weren’t supposed to become a permanent presence. Many started in the 1980s as an emergency stopgap as workers were losing their factory or forestry jobs. Usage declined steadily through the economic boom of the mid-2000s – only to shoot up in the recession and remain elevated ever since.

The still-high figures aren’t surprising to John Stapleton, a fellow at the Metcalf Foundation who has scrutinized income trends for the past 35 years. He notes that, with the exception of Saskatchewan, social-assistance caseloads in every province west of Quebec are still above prerecession levels, and that welfare rates have not kept up with inflation.

In Ontario, for example, a single person who receives $592 a month from welfare typically spends almost all of that on rent. “So people have enough to eat for a week, and then become urban nomads who ride their bike or walk from food program to food program in search of the next meal.”

He and other policy makers lament the dearth of information about income status in Canada. The federal government no longer produces national welfare statistics, and not all provinces publish their social-assistance caseloads. Unlike the U.S., Statistics Canada doesn’t publish how many unemployed people run out of EI without finding work. And the agency’s data on incomes is published with a two-year lag – meaning the last national indicator on poverty rates is from 2009.

The gap between the poor and the rich is widening, a recent Conference Board of Canada paper found. It said income disparity has risen more rapidly in Canada than in most of its peer countries, including the United States, since the mid-1990s.

Tuesday's survey lists several recommendations to help alleviate hunger in Canada. Affordable housing is at the top of the list, since shelter costs typically consume more than half of incomes. Other measures include updating EI to reflect the current reality of a more fluid job market.

Without steps like these, “expect health care and social service costs to rise,” Ms. Schmidt said. “And we are missing the opportunity to improve the quality of life for all Canadians.”

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