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Neil Hetherington, CEO of The Daily Bread Food Bank, sorts through groceries in Toronto on March 18, 2020.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

“People don’t want to be at a food bank,” Vince Barletta says. Yet the president and chief executive officer of Harvest Manitoba in Winnipeg has seen demand at his food bank grow by nearly 42 per cent since March, 2021 – an increase primarily made up of new clients.

Mr. Barletta recalls speaking with one client, a retired senior who worked all her life and raised four children. She was proud of her ability to manage on her own, and had never needed the support of a food bank until recently. The biggest issue for her is that prices are going up.

“People are at their wit’s end, and many call in tears, many call us as a last resort,” he said.

Across the country, food banks are experiencing greater demand as Canadians grapple with the rising costs of food. And with the inflation rate the highest it’s been in about two decades, researchers project an increase in food insecurity and health concerns. Unfortunately, the same factors driving people to food banks make food procurement harder for the organizations just as they’re needed the most.

In March, 2019, the Daily Bread Food Bank in Toronto saw about 60,000 client visits. This past March, the number of clients increased to 160,000 – most of them new users.

“Inflation as a whole is eroding any incomes that people have, particularly individuals on a fixed income. There’s absolutely nothing left over,” said Neil Hetherington, CEO of Daily Bread Food Bank.

Other food banks across Canada are seeing similar trends. In Charlottetown, Upper Room Hospitality Ministry executive director Mike MacDonald said new food bank clients increased 60 per cent from April, 2021, to April, 2022. “Almost everybody now is saying it’s because of the price of things, whether it be gas, groceries, rent, all of that combined,” he added.

It’s the same at Calgary Food Bank, where Shawna Ogston, communications and media relations supervisor, says they’ve experienced a consistent rise in users every month. In April, the charitable organization delivered food hampers to nearly 9,500 people, 75 per cent of whom were new clients.

In Manitoba, Mr. Barletta has seen growing demand from the province’s First Nation communities and remote rural communities, where people may not have the same access to food banks or grocery stores as those living in urban centres.

Rural communities in British Columbia are also disproportionally affected by food insecurity, said Food Banks BC executive director Dan Huang-Taylor. Over the past nine months, British Columbia has experienced supply chain issues because of devastating fires and floods. “It made a bad situation worse for many,” he said.

Early in January, researchers at Dalhousie University projected a 5-per-cent to 7-per-cent increase in the costs of food. Since their report came out, even more challenges have arisen for Canadians. “You have climate change. You have a pandemic. There’s a war now,” Dalhousie professor Sylvain Charlebois said. “And what’s going to make things even more complicated is that countries are starting to hoard commodities. So that’s going to push prices even higher.”

Things aren’t going to improve any time soon, he said. “I would say, right now, if I were to consider the current inflationary cycle as a hockey game, we’re probably right in the middle of the first period.”

As consumers are growing more frugal, procuring food is becoming a challenge for food banks. People are generally trying to waste less, and as a result less food is being diverted.

A lack of food leads to more than just hunger, experts warn.

According to a University of Toronto research study, there is a strong relationship between a rise in food insecurity and mental health. “The risk of experiencing depression, anxiety disorder, mood disorders or suicidal thoughts increases with the severity of food insecurity,” it states.

Many Canadians who are facing food insecurity are being forced to make choices that will affect their quality of life. Melana Roberts, chair at Food Secure Canada, said these could be “life or death decisions” for people already grappling with health concerns.

Food banks are important but not a long-term solution to these challenges, she said. “We need things like a universal livable income, we need livable minimum wages.”

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