ALBERTA

Alberta Food Bank Surge: Sign Of Bad Times For All?

07/21/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 07/20/2016 05:59 EDT
Danny Lawson/PA Wire
File photo dated 08/12/14 of a volunteer at a food bank, as new figures have revealed that the number of people using foodbanks has reached a record one million after an increase in workers on low pay having to seek emergency help for food.
The number of people turning to food banks is surging across Alberta and inching up in other parts of the country.

With so many rumblings of a recession, those on the front lines believe the upswing could be a sign of tough times ahead for much of Canada.

When the economy's in trouble, they say, the early signs appear at the food bank. It's where people turn when their employment insurance runs out or their savings account runs dry.

"It's where they go when they hit the wall," Gail Nyberg with Toronto's Daily Bread Food Bank told CBC News. "It's actually gauging those most vulnerable."

Bad signs in Alberta

Due to a slow down in the oil patch, food banks across Alberta are suddenly overrun with demand. Today, Alberta Food Banks is issuing a news release with an urgent call for donations, saying "the shelves are bare" at many locations.

"I've personally talked to a dozen food banks in the last two to three months and I can't think of one that has said their numbers haven't increased," executive director Stephanie Rigby said. "We know that there may be more to come, and I know the food banks are bracing."

Many newcomers, such as Pamela in Edmonton, are first-time users. "I never thought it would come to this," she said about seeking donated food.

Until she was laid off at Christmas, Pamela was earning $38 an hour working in the oil industry. We are withholding her last name because she worries publishing it will hurt her chances of landing another job.

Pamela says she and her husband, who's off work due to an injury, finally decided to turn to the food bank because they're running out of cash. They can barely keep up with their bills and are struggling to make the minimum payments on $17,000 in credit-card debt they've racked up to cover costs.  

"We've fallen upon hard times," Pamela said, adding that it's "a common experience" in oil country.

Tamisan Bencz-Knight with Edmonton's Food Bank reports its numbers are surging. The number of people collecting monthly hampers has risen 12.5 per cent compared with this time last year.

You see a lot of tears, a lot of people broken down a little bit," she said. "It's hard —  it's beyond hard right now."

The Wood Buffalo Food Bank Association, which serves Fort McMurray, the heart of the oil industry, is also seeing a lot of new faces. The association reports a staggering 57 per cent jump in usage in the first half of 2015 compared with last year.

"We've not really seen anything like we've seen this year. It's been a little bit scary," said Arianna Johnson, Wood Buffalo's executive director.

Canary in the coal mine

As Canada's economy continues to sputter, Nyberg with Toronto's food bank sees the growing numbers in Alberta as a bad sign. She suspects it's "the canary in the coal mine this time."

The last time, she says, Ontario took the lead. Months before the 2008 recession, Toronto and surrounding regions saw the signs first — a sudden spike in people turning to food banks.

"It was like, 'holy moly, what's going on?' I was kind of thinking, how come the [financial] banks don't see what's happening and nobody's saying we're in a recession," Nyberg said.

Ontario was first to feel the pain during the last recession because of the downturn in manufacturing, Nyberg said.

Now, with a downturn in the oil sector, she suspects Alberta's food banks are a harbinger of harder economic times.

Still waiting for recovery

Other regions are also showing signs of trouble as Canada's economy continues to sputter.

Thunder Bay's Regional Food Distribution Association is reporting a jump of six to 10 per cent, and Winnipeg's Harvest food bank has reported a 3.6 per cent increase in users.

Vancouver and Toronto report that their numbers are holding steady, but Nyberg warns that's no reason to celebrate.

"We're remaining pretty stable so that is the good news," she said. "But the bad news is, stable from the hit we took during the recession."

Just like the economy, Canada's food banks still haven't recovered from the last recession.

Toronto's Daily Bread Food Bank reports that the number of visits to locations across the region was more than a million in 2014, a number first reached when the bad times hit in 2008.

'Not a good feeling'

Fort McMurray's food bank finds itself struggling with its growing clientele. To cope, it's had to cut back the amount of food it gives to clients.

"It's not a good feeling," Johnson said, adding she also believes Canada may be "teetering on the edge of a recession" with Alberta in the driver's seat.

However, she pointed out, the province's oil sector helped Canada weather the past economic downturn, and an eventual rebound in that sector could help the country out of its current slump.

Pamela, the recently laid-off oil worker, is trying to remain hopeful, but she says she's doing it by exploring other career options.

"We are looking at different things," she said about herself and her husband. "We're not just sitting around for the oil industry to pick up because we understand that it may never pick up."

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