The Ontario Association of Food Banks (OAFB) said in its hunger count report that 374,698 people used food banks in March 2014. Of that total, 131,144 are children, accounting for 35 per cent of all people who accessed food banks.
In Waterloo Region, that number is even higher, estimates The Food Bank of Waterloo Region's executive director, Wendi Campbell.
"We think it has to do with the family sizes that we're seeing accessing services. New Canadian families, families in our rural communities where there's a higher number of children within each of those families," said Campbell.
Campbell said the number of children relying on the food bank for healthy meals hasn't increased significantly over the past few years. Instead she's seeing more families requiring more consistent support for longer periods of time.
Provincewide, 17,182 households accessed food banks for the first time in March 2014, according to the OAFB report. That represents a 20 per cent increase from 2013, when 14,026 households accessed food banks for the first time.
"We do see a number of families who are accessing services on a regular basis because those life circumstances that are happening in those homes are just preventing those families from making ends meet and ensuring that food is on the table," Campbell said.
Nutrition the focus for children
When it comes to donations for a food bank that has such a high number of children accessing food, Campbell said nutrition is the key.
She said the emphasis is on ensuring all the main components of a balanced diet are available, including fresh fruit and vegetables, dairy and meat products.
But some of those donations are hard to come by.
For the average donor, the focus is on non-perishable items, leaving farmers and larger retailers to provide the fresh components for a family food hamper.
The Food Bank of Waterloo Region has partnerships with retailers like Walmart and Loblaw, which provide large-scale donations of dairy products and some fresh produce. Those are balanced with additional partnerships between the food bank and local farmers for end of season produce, eggs, milk and meat.
"We're able to get access to, fairly frequently, dairy products so things like yogourt, cheese, that kind of stuff. The one thing that is typically in very short supply is fluid milk," said Matthew Cooper, the co-ordinator for House of Friendship's emergency food hamper program, one of the food bank's partner agencies.
On average, 2,000 children benefit from the food hamper program every month, Cooper said.