Justin Giovannetti speaks with the executive director of Edmonton’s Food Bank, Marjorie Bencz, as looming layoffs in Alberta’s oil sector threaten to bring more people to her door in 2015.
The Canada-wide 2014 hunger count showed food-bank use increased in Alberta at twice the national average. There’s been no respite in increasing demand since the global recession that began in 2007. How did the Edmonton Food Bank cope with the past year?
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Our numbers were very similar for the first half of the year as it was in 2013. Then in September there was a dramatic increase, a 16-per-cent increase in the people turning to us over the previous year. I’m always hesitant to draw a stereotype of people who use a food bank because anyone can lose a job, go through a family breakup or have health concerns. However, we’ve seen too many people who don’t have much in savings, so when things go sideways it doesn’t take a lot for them to be in a difficult situation.
How much of a problem is the year-over-year increase in demand for food aid?
Alberta is growing fast and many people are coming to Edmonton for work. We’ve seen 60,000 new arrivals in the past two years. When those new arrivals get into the community, it takes time for them to settle in. Alberta is an expensive place to live. Rent is high and it’s hard to find a place to live. If you need to pay your rent and damage deposit to get settled in a single month, it takes a toll on finances.
Many of those people have been drawn by the promise of jobs that pay well. What’s been the impact of the oil boom on the province’s poor?
Percentage-wise Alberta has more working poor than other provinces. Where other provinces might see higher unemployment, Alberta has people who are working but still can’t make ends meet. There tends to be a lot of jobs here, but a lot of them are services jobs and don’t pay as well as people think.
With the sudden plunge in the price of oil, companies have warned of mass layoffs while Premier Jim Prentice has warned of possible steep cuts in the civil service. How much worse could demand get?
We’ve all enjoyed a little break at the pump as consumers, but we know how dependent this province is on the oil and gas sector. Both the government and private sector need oil.
If things slow down there is quite a ripple effect across Alberta. People will see hours cut and jobs will be lost. That’s a concern for us because more people will be turning out to food banks across Alberta.
With mounting concern over the economy, how did your holiday drive go this year?
The food drive wraps up Friday and our goal was to collect 350,000 kilograms. The last weigh-in was 268,000 kilograms. Our goal for money was $1.3-million and we’re sitting at $1,000,312.21. We’re pretty happy with both of those totals, they now need to last us for the year. Not only are we providing food during the festive season for people in need, but we need to provide it year-round. People often forget of the work that food banks do outside of the festive time.
Now there are also rumours and concerns about the economic situation in Alberta with people losing jobs linked to the resource sector.
While we share the concern, no one has come to our doors yet and said they’ve lost their jobs.