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November 06, 2013

How many Canadians will use a food bank this year?

Food Banks Canada puts the number at 1.7 million. And remarkably, one in six households that seeks help from a food bank has employment income.

Two reports landed yesterday that help explain the multifaceted impact of the financial crisis and Canada’s slow recovery since 2009. One, from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), noted weaker employment rates and increased long-term unemployment. Another, from Food Banks Canada, reports a 25% increase in the number of Canadians relying on food banks compared to five years ago.

“We estimate that 1.7 million separate individuals will use food banks this year,” said Shawn Pegg, director of policy and research at Food Banks Canada. He and I spoke yesterday. “There were 830,000 just in the month of March.”

According to Food Banks Canada data, usage fell 20% between 2004 and 2008. Following the financial crisis however, it shot back up 19% in less than six months. About 80,000 people use a food bank for the first time each month. And one out of every six households helped by a food bank earns at least some employment income.

How many Canadians will use a food bank this year?

Pegg told me that this reflects the rise in service-sector jobs, many of which pay minimum wage. “They’re more likely to be part-time, temporary, low-paying and without benefits,” he said. “People are working, but they’re working one, two or even three jobs and they’re still not bringing enough in.”

Food Banks Canada made a series of recommendations in its report HungerCount 2013. Housing is the top priority.

“The one policy that would do the most to reduce the need for food banks is more affordable housing,” said Pegg.

The federal government, through the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, spends about $2 billion a year to provide Canadians with affordable housing. Food Banks Canada sees an opportunity to do more.

“Social housing operating agreements that have been in place since the 1960s and 1970s are expiring,” Pegg told me. “Those apartments are going to get a lot more expensive to live in. So we’re asking the federal government to re-invest half of what they save from those expiring agreements into a social housing operating fund.”

While Canada’s recovery compares well to other OECD countries, the organization’s new How’s Life? study supports at least one element of what Pegg’s research shows. Our “in-work poverty” rate — which is to say the numbers of Canadians who work few hours, are paid by the hour and who often shift back and forth between low-paying jobs and unemployment — is above the OECD average.

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