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Melissa Mullis, executive director of The Root Cellar Food and Wellness Hub in Medicine Hat, looks over the shelves at the community centre on a quiet afternoon on Dec 18. The Root Cellar is both a food bank as well as a community education hub with a program that teach families basic culinary skills, finances, and more.Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

A Southern Alberta community kitchen program says it has drastically reduced food-bank use among participants by providing more than just an emergency meal – in one case, teaching a client how to read, and in another, supporting someone through a child custody battle.

The Root Cellar Food and Wellness Hub in Medicine Hat runs the Food First program, which is a 12-week service that teaches families basic culinary skills but also focuses on identifying the root cause of food insecurity among clients. They are then connected to a range of community supports related to finances, literacy, mental health, parenting and more.

Melissa Mullis, executive director of the food bank, says nearly 200 clients have completed the program over six years, 85 per cent of whom have not accessed the emergency food pantry after completing the course. She said it comes down to investing in people’s lives.

“Food is the vessel to bring them to the program, but really what they get is community,” Ms. Mullis said. “That’s how you solve these problems. It’s that wraparound approach, asking what’s going on? How can we support you? How can we move you to the next level?”

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She said they are looking for ways to expand the program but the non-profit, which covers the $4,000 charge for each family to complete Food First, has limited resources. They are simultaneously facing an extraordinary demand for the emergency food pantry that serves up to 2,000 clients monthly – hundreds more than usual. And they aren’t the only ones.

Food-bank use has spiked since 2019 with the highest year-over-year increase since the aftermath of the 2008 recession, according to Food Banks Canada. The organization’s “hunger count,” released in October, showed there were nearly 1.5 million visits to food banks across Canada in March – a 15-per-cent increase compared with last March, driven by soaring inflation, an end to COVID-19 pandemic-relief benefits, and insufficient social-assistance programs.

Alberta topped the Canadian chart for the largest increase in food-bank use since 2019 at 73 per cent, which was more than double the national average. A report by Statistics Canada in 2020 also showed Alberta experienced the highest provincial rate of food insecurity in the country.

Ms. Mullis, in the centre's kitchen, says 85 percent of the 200 program participants no longer use The Root Cellar’s emergency food pantry, but the food bank is simultaneously facing an extraordinary demand, serving up to 2,000 clients monthly.Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

In November, the provincial government committed $10-million over two years to local food banks and said half would be distributed in the coming weeks as part of Alberta’s affordability action plan. The province has also announced other inflation-relief measures, including cash payments to seniors and families with children, suspending fuel taxes, extending electricity rebates, and indexing the Alberta Child and Family Benefit to inflation.

Valerie Tarasuk, a professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto and director of PROOF, the school’s research program on food insecurity, said food banks are an insufficient response to this widespread problem but have become the “public face” of it. She said people will continue to go hungry no matter how many millions of dollars are invested in food pantries.

There is a significant disconnect between the magnitude of people living in food-insecure situations and those accessing charity, with less than one in 10 food-insecure people utilizing food banks for reasons such as stigma and strict eligibility criteria, she said. The underlying problem is insufficient income, the effect of which extends beyond putting food on the table.

It affects people’s ability to pay for rent, utility bills, medications, telecommunications and so forth. “We naively walk around talking about food insecurity and hunger as if it’s about food,” she said. “The compromises in these households go way beyond food.”

Dr. Tarasuk said the growing number of Canadians without assured access to food is troubling, but what’s even more disturbing is the severity of it. People are characterized as severely food insecure if they have disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.

“Severe food insecurity matters because it is very, very toxic to health,” she said, referencing studies that show correlations between food insecurity and hospitalizations, emergency department visits and premature death. Research has also shown that children who grow up in these types of households are more likely to be diagnosed with depression and report suicidal ideation.

And while Dr. Tarasuk said programs like Food First are helpful, real change will only come when there are adequate income supports for working-aged adults who are not in the work force and sufficient salaries for those who are.

“There’s an opportunity cost to the failure to articulate this other side,” she said. “And that is that we keep perpetuating an ineffective response.”