When Chuck Griffith took over as operation manger of the Friends in Need Food Bank three years ago, he had but one lofty goal. By 2013, he hoped his services would no longer be needed.
“I knew it was probably not a realistic,” says Griffith, who nonetheless wished the demand for help would taper off after peaking during the recession.
Although the latest statistics from Food Bank Canada show a slight annual decrease in the number of people across the country who need a helping hand, food bank use remains 23 per cent higher than it was before the economic slump began five years ago.
“Unfortunately, we are seeing the exact opposite,” says Griffith. “There are more and more people coming in.”
The Maple Ridge-based agency saw a 65 per cent increase in clients from January to July this year alone.
Three years ago, Friends in Need Food Bank would hand out an average of 500 hampers per month. Currently, it averages 700 hampers monthly, and often reaches the 800 mark.
Friends in Need Food Bank is also seeing an increase in children and seniors seeking help.
In October, the Friends in Need Food Bank helped 3,652 people, including 1,154 children under the age of 18 and 211 adults over the age of 65.
It means the food bank has had to extend its reach into the school district, where it helps with breakfast and bagged lunch programs.
The working poor are another escalating statistic.
“Rent has gone up, but social assistance and pay cheques haven’t gone up,” says Griffith.
He recounts the plight of one client – a woman with a husband who is ill and three children. She works full-time at a gas station and makes weekly visits to the food bank because her pay cheque goes to cover her husband’s medication.
“There’s not a chance in hell that she can make it without us,” Griffith adds.
He’s also seeing donors turn into clients.
The food bank’s Pitt Meadows depot registered 15 clients last month – a record high for a city with a population just shy of 18,000 residents.
“That’s a huge increase just in one month alone,” says Griffith.
The Hunger Count 2013 report, released Tuesday, highlights that in a typical month, food banks in Canada now provide food to more than three quarters of a million separate individuals – 833,000 people – and nearly four in ten 10 are children.
“Far too many people are looking into an empty fridge and wondering how they’re going to feed themselves and their kids,” said Katharine Schmidt, executive director of Food Banks Canada, which coordinated the national study involving more than 4,000 food programs.
The study found that each month, 80,000 Canadians are forced to ask for help from a food bank for the first time; nearly 40,000 of those helped each month are seniors with incomes too meagre to afford enough food; and one in six households assisted by food banks have employment income, yet still can’t make ends meet.
“The inability to obtain enough food, when it is abundant all around us, is physically and psychologically scarring,” added Schmidt. “It is simply unacceptable in a nation as prosperous as Canada. We are calling on the federal and provincial governments to make real investments in policies that will reduce the need for food banks.”
Key recommendations from the report: increasing access to affordable housing, so that Canadians are not forced to choose between paying rent or buying food; increasing investment in education and training for Canadians at risk of failing in the job market, so that people can become self-sufficient through employment; investing in local food solutions to help Canadians build the capacity to feed themselves; and revolutionizing social assistance so people are not trapped in poverty.
In Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows, Griffith say there’s a simple way to help: buy a $2 coupon or drop food into one of their donation boxes while shopping for groceries.
“If the community is doing that, then I don’t have to worry about how I’ll take care of people,” he adds.
“To be honest, if I never had to buy a dime of food, it would be great.”
• Read the Hungry Count 2013 report online.
• Help Save On Foods on 227th Street in Maple Ridge stuff the bus with food bank hampers on Nov. 23.
• Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows firefighters will shake their boots for the Friends In Need Food Bank on Dec. 14. The funds raised ensures that the food bank has milk for families. Donations will be collected at the IGA, government liquor stores, SuperStore and Starbucks in Pitt Meadows and Safeway, both Save On Foods locations, Extra Foods, Cooper Foods and Thrifty Foods in Maple Ridge.
• The food bank will be collecting non-perishable donations at Port Haney station on Dec. 15 from 8:45 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., when Canadian Pacific Railway’s Holiday Train stops in town.