Food bank use soars in Alberta as cost of living increases

Food bank use in Alberta rose more than double the national average during the past year.

That’s according to a national report which comes as no surprise to Calgary’s Food Bank. It has seen demand soar in the past six months.

Higher food costs, less affordable housing, even September’s record-breaking “snowmageddon� have all contributed to a 10-per-cent climb in demand in Calgary alone, creating even harder times for those already struggling financially.

Food Banks Canada “HungerCount 2014,� a comprehensive report on hunger and food bank use across the country, showed little change and even some decrease in food bank needs in Eastern Canada and the Maritimes.

But the west, including Alberta, shows a much starker picture. The Northwest Territories and Saskatchewan showed spikes of 32 and 19 per cent, respectively.

The national average was 1.0 per cent, and Alberta’s increase was 2.3 per cent.

“There are so many reasons for the increase in demand,� said Shawna Ogston, spokeswoman for the Calgary Food Bank, which helped 130,000 families from all quadrants last year.

“The cost of living in Calgary and Alberta has risen so much. And food is the first thing that people cut, because rent isn’t negotiable.

“Even last month’s snowmageddon event saw a lot of people lose everything in their fridge and freezer. And that’s not easy for everybody to just replace.�

In the second week of September, nearly 30 centimetres of heavy, wet snow fell on Calgary, cutting power to thousands of homes. About 2,000 had no electricity for several days and were forced to throw away perishable food.

Ogston said many young families waiting in line for hampers have also said they’re still waiting for government assistance after their financial losses due to the devastating 2013 flood.

Some are seasonal workers just getting laid off, while others are facing rent hikes they can’t afford.

Katharine Schmidt, executive director of Food Banks Canada, agreed Alberta food bank demands are high because the province’s wealth keeps pushing up the cost of living.

“The recent boom, although it created a lot of jobs, it also made cost of living very high. And the percentage of young families in Calgary is also very high.�

Schmidt added that elsewhere in Canada the job market is very tough, leading to much larger increases in food bank use in other parts of the country.

“The unfortunate combination of low-paying jobs, inadequate supports for the unemployed, and a lack of training opportunities for Canadians is keeping food bank use near record levels.�

Also in the HungerCount report, Food Banks Canada found that since 2008, there has been a 48-per-cent hike in food bank use in Alberta.

The report outlines a series of recommendations to governments across Canada, including investing in affordable housing, providing effective support to low-income families, addressing food insecurity in Canada’s north, and providing more effective support and social assistance to low-income families with children.

“It has been six years since the recession sent food bank use soaring,� added Schmidt. “It is time to stop waiting for things to improve. It is time to start acting to make real investments in policies that will reduce the need for food banks.�

Cheryl Tkalcic, spokeswoman for Alberta Human Services, said the province is working on strategies to reduce the demand on food banks, including building more affordable housing and working with municipalities to create better programs for the homeless — including job training and addictions counselling.

Tkalcic added that the province has recently increased payments for AISH (Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped) and subsidies for child care for low-income families.

“We want to do all we can to make sure parents can go to work without having to worry about child care.�

Human Services Minister Heather Klimchuk was unavailable for comment.

Food Banks Canada is the only national charitable organization representing and supporting the food bank community across Canada.

eferguson@calgaryherald.com

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