Young and hungry: About half of Prince Albert Food Bank customers are children

A recent report raised alarm bells about the number of children served by food banks across Canada. Local data shows the number in Prince Albert are worse.

A volunteer stocks shelves at the Prince Albert Food Bank in this photo from 2016. -- Herald file photo.

The Prince Albert Food Bank sees a lot of children come through its doors.

In any given month, between 47 and 50 per cent of all visits were children.

This is despite the fact that only 28.6 per cent of Prince Albert’s population, according to the  2016 census, fall between the ages of 0 and 19.

“It’s sad,” says Prince Albert Food Bank executive director Kim Scruby.

It’s also not a uniquely Prince Albertan phenomenon.

According to a report released by Food Banks Canada last week, a sampling of food bank clients from March of last year showed that 43.5 per cent of all visits to Saskatchewan’s food banks were made by children under the age of 18. When just the province’s 21 rural food banks are counted, that percentage increases to 44.8.

Nationally, children represent only 20 per cent of the population. Yet they made up 35.2 per cent of Canada’s food bank visits in March 2018.

In that month alone, food banks reported more than 1 million visits.

“Food bank use continues to be unacceptably high,” Food Banks Canada wrote in its report.

“Poverty is the root cause of food bank use. While it is essential that people in need have access to food today, changes in government policy to support people out of poverty are what will truly drive down the number of people turning to food banks across Canada.”

Food bank use is at “historical levels,” the organization said. More must be done, they argued, to support people with low income and those living in poverty.

The organization welcomed the federal government’s first poverty reduction strategy as a good sign but said more needed to be done.

Food Banks Canada put forward four policy recommendations to reduce poverty long term, and hopefully ease the pressure on the nation’s food banks.

The policy recommendations include steps, such as pilot projects, towards basic income for all in Canada; the creation of standardized, affordable early learning and childcare across Canada; increased supports for single adults living with low incomes, as the percentage of single people using food banks has doubled since 2001; and doing more to reduce northern food insecurity.

Closer to home, it seems like economic activity is the answer. Scruby did an analysis of food bank use and compared it to Prince Albert’s unemployment rate. The two measures matched.

“There’s definitely some correlation with the local economy there,” he said.

Food bank use is continuing to rise.

“I haven’t crunched the numbers for the last month, but it has been a bit busier. I’m hoping with the news about the diamond mine, the mill possibly again and whatever else will have a positive impact around here. Sooner rather than later would be helpful.”

Several major announcements have been made about economic development in the Prince Albert area recently. The Rio Tinto Diamond Mine is years out, as is any potential investment at the old pulp mill. Paper Excellence, which owns that facility, has said they are reviewing the mill’s economic potential. Mayor Greg Dionne has denied anything other than demolition has been done at the facility. The non-competition clause for the mill is set to expire next year.

An approval for a cannabis production plant set to bring about 60 jobs and the expansion of a local boat retailer into manufacturing has provided some economic optimism in recent months.

The good news for the food bank is it’s not low on supplies.

“December was really good for us,” Scruby said.

“That’s when we have a lot of our fundraising and a lot of schools, individuals and companies have food drives. It’s really amazing how the community rallies together to support their own.”

Provincially, the data from Food Banks Canada has attracted the attention of the Saskatchewan NDP.

Leader Ryan Meili held a press conference Friday to address Saskatchewan’s rate of children accessing food banks, the highest in the nation.

“We’ve heard … that there are serious concerns for food security across the country, but in Saskatchewan, those are particularly dire,” he said.

Meili cited Saskatchewan’s high rates of child poverty – 25 per cent, as well as the rate of child poverty on reserve of 60 per cent.

“This is one more piece of evidence of the problem we have in Saskatchewan. … Those numbers are embarrassing,” he said.

“Saskatchewan is a wealthy place. It should be the best place in the country to be a kid, and instead, it’s the hungriest and it’s the poorest. We need to do better.”

Meili called on the provincial government to implement a poverty reduction strategy. He also called for expansions to school food programs.

“Let’s make that a goal for us to have the lowest poverty rate instead of the highest, and let’s make sure no kids are going to school or to bed hungry, and one of the ways to do that is to expand school food programs,” he said.

Locally, businesses have stepped up to help fund food programs for schools. Stores have made single large donations to food programs, while the Feeding our Futures program, which runs in both the public and Catholic school divisions, is supported a consortium of local businesses.

Food bank use by the numbers

Children aren’t the only demographic overrepresented in food bank usage, both provincially and at the local level.

In Saskatchewan in March 2018, single people made up 43.1 per cent of all households served by food banks. Single parent families consisted of 28.4 per cent.

Just over half, 52.2 per cent of visitors, had social assistance as the primary income source, while 8.5 per cent were on provincial disability-related supports.

Locally, from April to December 2018, single people represented 38 per cent of all visits and increased seven per cent from a year prior.

Single-parent families made up 27 per cent of all visits, while two-parent families made up 25 per cent of all visits. Childless couples accounted for 10 per cent of the food bank’s April-December 2018 clientele.

Two-parent families, though, jumped the most from 2017 to 2018, increasing by 36 per cent. Both single-parent families and couples without kids increased by 11 per cent. Overall, visits went from 874  in 2017 to 1001 in 2018, an increase of 15 per cent.