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05/10/2018 15:02 EDT | Updated 05/10/2018 15:02 EDT

1 In 5 Canadians Have Used A Food Bank In Their Life: Study

More than four in 10 Canadians don't believe the country has a food crisis.

Few people would associate Canada with hunger, but a new study has found that the country's food crisis is more severe than most people think.

An online survey, which polled more than 1,500 Canadians, was commissioned by Catelli as part of their Feed the Hope campaign to help fight child hunger in Canada. Although nearly 20 per cent of participants said they knew someone who used a food bank, more than four in 10 Canadians didn't believe the country had a food crisis.

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"I'm not sure why people don't realize the crisis that we're in," Ryan Noble, the executive director of North York Harvest Food Ban, told HuffPost Canada in an email. "Often I feel as though we think of hunger and food insecurity as happening to somebody else."

Catelli brand manager Claire Labrom agreed with this sentiment. In a press release, she said, "Many Canadians think they know the kind of person who uses a food bank. The harsh reality, however, is that hunger doesn't discriminate and affects people you'd least expect — your neighbours, colleagues, classmates, and friends."

One in five Canadians have used a food bank in their life, the survey found, and over 850,000 people use them each month. But despite how common food bank use is, Canadians have a negative perception of people who use them.

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The poll revealed that one-third of Canadians believe poor money management is the number 1 reason people use food banks, while one in five believe it's because they are taking advantage of "the system."

In reality, low income is the main reason for hunger across the country, Food Banks Canada reports. The rising cost of living across Canada also contributes to people's reliance on food banks, Michael Maidment, the executive director of the Ottawa Food Bank, told CBC News last year.

"After paying for rent and utilities, the average food bank user in Toronto has less than $7 of disposable income each day to spend on all necessities including child care, healthcare, transportation, education and food," Noble explained. "It is not a matter of managing this money, rather there simply isn't enough to cover the full cost of living."

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A 2016 report from Food Banks Canada noted a significant spike in food bank use across the country, with the territories (up 24.9 per cent) and Nova Scotia (up 20.9 per cent) experiencing the biggest increases.

Noble has witnessed this spike, and says food bank usage is "rising sharply" in Toronto's inner suburbs, where more people are moving for affordable housing.

The study noted that millennials, aged 18 to 34, are the most likely to turn to food banks for help after encountering money problems or losing their jobs. According to Noble, this is because this group tends to face a combination of challenges that are harder to overcome. "High costs of education and housing combined with a lack of good employment opportunities" is an example he offered.

"Unfortunately, many of the most visited food banks are often at colleges and universities," he noted.

Others are less likely to turn to food banks due to the stigma and judgment from others.

"It is well-documented that people prefer not to access food banks — they exhaust other avenues of support before taking that step," Food Banks Canada noted in their 2016 report. Instead, some would rather go into debt, skip bills or just go hungry.

Noble said the onus is now on organizations like North York Harvest Food Bank to raise awareness of the food crisis in Canada and give people the support they need.

"The systemic issues that drive food bank usage are things that we are all somewhat familiar with," Noble said. "While some of us have supports to deal with this struggle, others do not. For those people, food banks remain a critical support."

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