Nearly a million Canadians are using food banks each month, a level that has stayed stubbornly high since the recession.

More than 841,000 people in Canada visited a food bank during the month of March this year, a 1-per-cent increase from a year earlier and almost 25 per cent higher than before the 2008 economic downturn, an annual HungerCount tally to be released on Tuesday shows.

The number reflects several currents in the economy, from disability and social assistance payments that have not kept pace with inflation to the prevalence of lower-wage work, a lack of affordable housing and the delayed effects of the recession.

“For those who can’t work – government supports are extremely low and have not evolved with a changing economy. And many Canadians aren’t able to access the training they need to qualify for well-paying jobs,” said Katharine Schmidt, executive director of Food Banks Canada, which produced the national count.

Full-time jobs are increasingly hard to come by, while many new positions are “low-paying, precarious jobs” that are temporary or part-time, she added.

Food-bank clients are increasingly single people, at 43 per cent of the total, up from 29 per cent in 2001. Several factors may explain this trend, among them that recent social policy has focused more on lone parents than people who are single.

Diana Foch is one of them. She worked as a quality control supervisor until about three years ago, when her father was diagnosed with dementia. She quit, sold her house and car and moved to Toronto to help take care of him. Ms. Foch, 48, does laundry, buys groceries, bathes and cooks for her father. Now without a salary, she has had to rely on a food bank this year. “There’s no way possible for me to swing both” a job and caring for her dad, she said.

She has learned the art of frugal shopping, combing through flyers, buying items such as cream cheese or laundry detergent in bulk on sale. She has learned to cook with cheaper staples. But meat – like roast chicken or ground beef – she can no longer afford. (Statistics Canada inflation data show meat prices have climbed 11.5 per cent in the past year, the fastest increase since June, 1987).

The report shows one in six people at food banks is holding a job, while another 5 per cent are receiving jobless benefits. Newcomers to Canada are also using food banks. Twelve per cent of those helped are immigrants or refugees, a level that rises to 20 per cent in larger cities.

The ranks of single men in particular have been growing, a trend partly explained by the loss of traditional “male” jobs in manufacturing, forestry, farming and fishing.

“There’s a lag effect” after an economic downturn, said John Stapleton, social policy expert and fellow at the Metcalf Foundation. “People go through … their savings and family and friends, and finally there’s a point at which you can’t go to those wells any more.”

It is difficult to pinpoint current low-income trends. The most recent Statistics Canada data on poverty trends were in 2011, which showed three million Canadians, or 8.8 per cent of the population, were considered low income. There are no complete statistics on social assistance trends.

The food bank report recommends greater investment in affordable housing. It also says policy makers should look at remedying the high levels of “food insecurity” in Canada’s North (where access to affordable, healthy food is a pressing challenge) and replacing “stigmatizing” social assistance bureaucracy with the introduction of a basic income model.

The Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Nov. 04 2014, 3:00 AM EST
Last updated Tuesday, Nov. 04 2014, 8:29 AM EST