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Canada Alberta food banks under strain as rural towns bear brunt of oil slump

Ernie Melin sorts donations near empty shelves normally stocked with food at the Edmonton Food Bank facility in Edmonton, Alberta on Tuesday, July 21, 2015.

Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

Alberta's food banks are scrambling this summer, unable to keep pace with an increasing number of users from the province's small towns.

The shift in emphasis, from urban centres to rural communities, is a human aftershock of the plunge in oil prices that has seen Alberta's economy sag and thousands of workers laid off. Many have returned to their small-town homes because it is simply too expensive for them to live in Edmonton, Calgary or Fort McMurray. That, in turn, has strained Alberta's more than 100 food banks and their ability to feed those who need it – not that the banks have given up the fight.

During the past two weeks, Alberta Food Banks has shipped "a record 78 pallets of food to 24 food banks [throughout the province] … that's in addition to the six transport trailers of food distributed to larger food banks," the organization said in a news release.

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"Usually, it is the bigger centres [that experience increased users]," Stephanie Rigby, executive director of Alberta Food Banks, said in an interview. "This time it's in the smaller places. When the economy slips, food banks are stretched to meet the increased demands."

The number of people visiting Edmonton's food bank has gone up nearly 13 per cent compared with a year ago. Not surprisingly, oil-dependent Fort McMurray comes in at No. 1. With the price of oil having tanked from $100 (U.S.) a barrel last year to $50.75, thousands of workers have been laid off, some with little hope of returning to their job.

That's why the Wood Buffalo Food Bank Association in Fort McMurray saw a 57-per-cent increase in usage in the first six months of 2015 compared with year ago. Executive director Arianna Johnson has said there is a "clear increase in need in our community."

"The first set of layoffs here was manageable," Ms. Johnson said. "They were subcontractors and people who didn't live here. So they went home. … But there are still people here who need help. We'll continue to ask our community to support us." Some of the people who went home to rural areas are now reliant on food banks, she said.

The hampers, all filled by donations, must meet Canada Food Guide requirements and include protein with either fish or beef.

The number of Canadians who rely on food banks has steadily increased over recent years. Close to 850,000 come to a food bank once a month. It has been reported that Alberta has seen a 48-per-cent increase in users over the past six years, which is double the national average.

In Calgary, the number of food-bank users has plateaued – 132,469 people visited the food bank last year. "We're no worse, no better," said communications manager Shawna Ogston, who indicated there has been a change in one regard. "Where one hamper was good, people now need two to three to get back on their feet."

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The reasons for that include the high cost of becoming a homeowner here, high apartment rents with low vacancy rates, pricey parking and gas plus one of the lowest minimum wages in Canada – $10.20 an hour.

It's proof of how necessary food banks have become and how much more work needs to be done.

"We're back to telling people, 'Don't forget about us,'" Ms. Ogston said. "The food banks need your support and not just at Christmas."

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