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National Hunger Count mirrors dramatic rise in Calgary Food Bank use

Across Canada during March, the month used to generate the Food Banks Canada Hunger Count, nearly two million Canadians turned to their local food banks for emergency help.

In Alberta, there were 174,311 visits to food banks across the province, with nearly 37 per cent of those visits done to feed children—a dramatic 94.1 per cent rise in food bank usage in the province from pre-pandemic 2019 to 2023.

Melissa From, CEO of the Calgary Food Bank said that it was important to keep in mind that the numbers provided by Food Bank Canada’s Hunger Count were a snapshot in time, and represented a fraction of total food bank usage.

“Those year-over-year numbers for March, and so let’s take it to today: when we look at the month of September in 2019, we were serving between 300 and 350 clients a day. If we look at September of last year, we were distributing just over 400 emergency food hampers. This last month we just finished… 700 emergency food hampers,” she said.

From said that the Calgary Food Bank represented about 25 per cent of the numbers of clients counted by the 2023 Hunger Count. From September 1, 2022 to August 31, 2023, the Calgary Food Bank distributed 149,909 hampers, and 1,320,635 pounds of food through the Food Link program with 56 partner organizations.

Kirstin Beardsley, Chief Executive Officer for Food Banks Canada, said that this year’s report represented the largest-ever increase in food bank usage nationally year-over-year.

“Relentless inflation and a broken social safety net has caused many people who never thought they would need a food bank to walk through the doors for the first time,” Beardsley said.

“With food banks across Canada in crisis mode, as demand reaches new all-time highs, we must ask, when is it enough before we act?”

Among the calls to action by Food Banks Canada were to address the root causes of food insecurity through renewed government support of social safety nets, addressing the affordability of housing, and providing support for low-income working Canadians—including greater support for seasonal and precarious position work.

The entire Hunger Count report, and policy recommendations made are available at foodbankscanada.ca/hungercount/.

Calgary usage is different than national averages

From said that there are some differences between the situation that the Calgary Food Bank is in versus other food banks nationally—higher usage in Calgary of people working at 31 per cent versus 16 per cent across Canada.

Additionally in Calgary, 64 per cent of food bank clients are families, versus nearly 47 per cent nationally.

“There’s over 5,000 food banks that participate in this, and I think this may be where you see some of the rural-urban divide and the cost of living in urban centres.”

“When you look at Calgary, Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, where the cost of living the cost of housing is higher, that’s where you’re going to see more of the folks that, for lack of a better term, the working poor, just can’t make ends meet no matter how hard they try.”

From said that the number one thing that the Calgary Food Bank wanted Calgarians to know is that they are there to help, regardless.

Pointing to the recent Calgary Foundation Quality of Life Report, which said that 36 per cent of parents facing food insecurity skip meals to feed their children, From said that was something she never wanted to see happen.

“When folks are coming to the Calgary Food Bank and getting a hamper they’re disclosing who’s in their household to make sure they maximize the support that they’re getting. What scares me is the people who think either ‘I don’t think I would qualify,’ or ‘I don’t want to be a burden,'” she said.

“If you need help don’t hesitate to reach out because the numbers like this are so big and it makes you think you don’t want to be a burden on the system like we want those people to reach out.”

Seeing the growth in need firsthand

Teresa, an eight-year volunteer with the Calgary Food Bank, said that she has seen firsthand the growth in demand for emergency food hampers in the city.

“In the old building, there was a chart every day as to how many hampers were going out. At that point, it probably averaged 100 a day. Now we’re over 700 a day,” she said.

“The other thing is just the growth of the food bank itself. We have moved the sorting line over to [the second warehouse] from the main warehouse, and it’s just a large increase in volumes.”

She said that she wasn’t surprised by the increase in volumes reported by the 2023 Hunger Count.

“94 per cent, that that’s really high, but it’s definitely it. There’s been a huge increase in Calgary,” Teresa said.

“It’s a big, big number. I can tell you is that over the past eight years, the volumes that the people that we’ve seen coming through, also the different types of people coming through, I think some people would be surprised that maybe their neighbours are coming to the food bank now.”

From said that with the upcoming winter season, there is always a need for more volunteers to help.

“Some 60 per cent of our workforce is actually volunteers, and that’s part of the reason we can do what we do to the extent that we do,” she said.

“There’s 800 volunteer shifts in a week, every week at the Calgary food bank. And so we’re so grateful for the folks who are here doing this every day with us, but there is always room for more folks that are looking for ways to engage in their community and to give back in a meaningful way.”