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More Canadians than ever are suffering from food insecurity

According to the Hunger Count, the number of food bank visits has gone up by more than 20 per cent in the last two years.
(Shawn Goldberg /

Hunger is cruelly invisible in our society. Even though it may surround us, we hardly see it. But it’s always there.

With the latest Hunger Count published by Food Banks Canada, we have a better idea of how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected Canada’s food insecurity landscape. The news isn’t great.

According to an internal survey of food bank operators, the number of visits has gone up by more than 20 per cent in the last two years. The highest observed increases were in Quebec, Ontario and Alberta. In Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, the rate of food bank visits decreased, but not by much. Visits to food banks in rural communities have gone down by 3.8 per cent.

More Canadians are going hungry while our cost of living skyrockets. It’s not likely to get easier any time soon.

According to the report, food banks in larger urban centres were more likely to see very high increases in visits, likely driven by pandemic-related unemployment and layoffs. They were also more likely to see racialized groups. Food banks in smaller urban centres were more likely to see seniors and people with disabilities.

As a result, the report states, the pandemic has magnified systemic inequities in our society, despite all the programs put in place during the pandemic, worth well over $400 billion worth.

During the pandemic, $200 million was added to the Emergency Food Security Fund so food banks, related agencies and Indigenous organizations can keep helping struggling Canadians put food on the table. That funding was understandably beneficial for the food bank network during these unprecedented times.

The pandemic really showed why food banks need to exist and how they play an essential role in our economy. No government programs can deploy aid and respond as quickly or efficiently to market failures or systemic crises such as a pandemic.

Programs created during the pandemic, such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), were quickly operationalized and delivered much-needed help to millions. That was an exceptional situation since the crisis hit the entire world almost at once.

But in normal times, there’s always a community out there or a family suddenly hit by food insecurity. Food banks are there to help right away. Food banks are anyone’s CERB, outside a pandemic. It’s as simple as that.

Food banks are communities helping communities. They often represent a network of people who want to help, working with those who need it.

And food banks are no longer warehouses in some obscure part of town. Most of them are no longer in the business of simply supplying calories to people needing food. The focus is mainly wellness and helping individuals and families get back on their feet. And they’re about pride, not shame, about joy, not chronic sorrow.

Miracles happen almost daily at food banks, but few people outside the network will notice. Food banks provide help without prejudice. They need to be celebrated, as they are truly wonders of the human spirit.

If you can, you should take a minute to support your local food bank with a monetary donation. They know how to work with cash and multiply dollars into thousands of meals. It’s impressive.

Food banks obviously also need donated food to operate. They rely on generous farmers, processors, grocers, events, and individual private donors to replenish their warehouses and networks.

But as we rescue more food across supply chains, food banks will be challenged by having less access to food surplus. Food costs are going up, which will likely make us all more frugal and careful with the food we buy and consume every day. Food banks will have to get more creative to procure food by working with new partners.

With the pandemic almost behind us, it will finally be easier for them to run campaigns safely again and rely on volunteers.

And finally, another noteworthy statistic from the report: 46 per cent of food bank visitors live alone.

Many Canadians face a perfect storm of having to deal with higher housing and food costs while not benefiting from higher wages. And with our ageing population, the number of people in Canada living alone will increase. Close to 32 per cent of households will have only one person by 2025.

We need to think about this as we try to help those who will experience acute food insecurity.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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