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Canadian food banks feel the squeeze amid holiday spike, rising year-round demand

Increasing demand for food assistance this year, coupled with a regular spike in users during the holiday season, has strained Canadian food banks this month, the directors of two food bank associations say.

“Christmas is always a busy time for our food banks but particularly when you add Christmas … plus the regular need throughout the month of December has been increased, it just puts even more pressure on the food banks,” said Shawna Bissell, executive director of Food Banks Alberta, a network of over 100 local organizations in the province.

Organizations across the country have reported an increase in users this year. National network Food Banks Canada counted 1,935,911 visits to food banks in March — the latest data available — a 32.1 per cent increase from March 2022 and a 78.5 per cent jump from March 2019.

In Ontario, visits surged 36 per cent — to 5,888,685 — between April 2022 and March 2023 compared to the previous year, according to a November release from Feed Ontario.

Bissell says demand is so high in her network that it’s unable to build up food reserves. “As soon as that food is coming it’s being distributed out to people in need,” she said in an interview. “Every year we seem to be feeding more and more people.”

WATCH | How Quebec food banks are feeding a growing number of people: 

Following the food: How Quebec food banks are feeding a growing number of people

19 days ago

Duration 4:17

For CBC’s Charity Drive series, we followed the food chain of a food bank network in the Laurentians to see all the work that goes into getting food to those who need it. Organizations say more and more people do.

On the other side of the country, Food Banks of Quebec executive director Martin Munger says his organization this year distributed twice the number of aid packages it handed out in 2019. It gave out tens of thousands of food baskets in the run-up to Christmas, alone, he said. Now, stocks are low.

Demand, he said, has “been high all year long, and it’s also been higher during the holiday season than in previous years.”

Despite the challenges, both Bissell and Munger expect to continue to be able to pull together enough funds and donations to meet demand without turning people away. But Munger hopes the government will implement more sustainable solutions to help people feed themselves rather than resort to food banks, an emergency resource that now serves one in 10 Quebecers, he said.

“It has to stop increasing,” he said. “It’s not tenable and food banks weren’t developed to respond to demand on this scale on an ongoing basis.”

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