Rural food bank use likely higher than reported

Last March, when local food banks last reported national use figures to Food Banks Canada, they said more than 114,000 rural Canadians lined up for a meal that month.

It represented just 13 percent of national food bank use but a national food banks official says that figure likely understates the real extent of rural food needs.

“There are special challenges for folks looking for assistance in rural areas,” Food Banks Canada executive director Katharine Schmidt said in a Nov. 3 interview from Toronto. “They face the challenge of is there a food bank around and then the challenge of going to ask for help when a neighbour may see them.”

Hunger advocates also suggest that many rural hungry prefer to drive to city food banks where they can have more anonymity and less chance of being recognized but therefore become part of the urban total.

Schmidt said one striking note about rural food bank use is that rural residents receiving help are more than twice as likely as urban residents to own their own homes.

And rural food banks also often are under-resourced.

“There aren’t the food drives and access to the corporate resources of urban centres,” she said. “Rural food banks are often stretched the most when it comes to resources and the ability to meet the demand.”

Rural food bank figures were part of Food Banks Canada’s annual HungerCount report that calculated more than 850,000 Canadians received a meal from a food bank in March, down slightly from 2010 figures but still 26 percent higher than before the recession in 2008.

“We believe that in 2011, we will see 1.9 million people visiting a food bank in Canada,” said Schmidt. “These are shocking numbers in a country as rich as Canada.”

Almost 40 percent last year were under age 18.

As it does every year, Food Banks Canada called on governments to develop an anti-poverty strategy that includes more affordable housing and more generous Employment Insurance benefits for older unemployed Canadians.

The FBC official said that of the 850,000 Canadians who asked for food bank help in March, 90,000 had never been there before. “Clearly, despite talks of job creation, many people are struggling.”

Broken down into provinces, the FBC report shows that Alberta is one of the worst performing provinces with a decline in food bank use of just one percent compared to almost nine percent in Saskatchewan and four percent in Manitoba.

Inflated living costs because of the economic boom have made it difficult for many Albertans, including the working poor, to cover their living costs and buy adequate food.

The FBC report said the national numbers show that while the economy has rebounded from its recessionary depths, “there appears to be a stubborn limit to how low the need for assistance can fall.”

Schmidt said the rise in food bank need since 2008 has not been matched by increased donations and resources to food banks. Many have had to reduce how much food they can give each person or how many times they can receive food.

“Canadians remain generous but resources have not kept up with demand and many food banks are really stretched,” she said.

Schmidt noted that Canadians are generous in donating to overseas food crises.

“It is really important for Canadians to know that there is a need right here at home that often is not being met.”

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