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Record numbers needing help at North Shore food bank

'We’ve never seen numbers like this,' says Cynthia Boulter, chief operating officer of the Greater Vancouver Food Bank
North Shore Neighbourhood House executive director Lisa Hubbard (left) and manager of communication and community resource development Tricia Alsop help out at the food bank located at the North Shore Neighbourhood House gymnasium. The Greater Vancouver Food Bank is facing record demand. | Paul McGrath / North Shore News

The number of people turning to the Greater Vancouver Food Bank at North Shore Neighbourhood House to keep themselves and their families fed has hit unprecedented levels.

Stats from 2022 show 1,154 residents were being served per month in North Vancouver, more than double the previous record of 576 set in 2021. The fastest growing demographics of people getting their basic nutrition needs met by the food bank were single adults and children – both up 153 per cent in the last year.

“It’s record breaking, quite simply. I mean, we are breaking records quite frequently,” said Cynthia Boulter, chief operating officer of the Greater Vancouver Food Bank, noting demand is spiking across the region. “We signed up 900 new clients in March. We’ve never seen numbers like this.”

North Shore Neighbourhood House executive director Lisa Hubbard said she too has seen the change. And there’s a higher burden of stress the clients seem to be carrying, she said.

“We’re seeing people that we haven’t seen before. We’re seeing people that are working. We’re seeing people that have children and whole families coming. That’s new,” she said. “People are in need. Costs are going up. It’s not just food costs, but all costs.”

So far, Boulter said they haven’t had to start turning away new clients, although other food banks have, and for the first time in their history, they are starting those conversations.

Food Bank Day

Every Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., the gymnasium at North Shore Neighbourhood House is converted into a supermarket of sorts where clients can register and then shop from one table to the next for groceries, personal care and hygiene products, with different allotments for singles, couples and families.

There are also professional “navigators” who can help better understand clients’ issues, provide information and connect them with other services they may need but don’t know how to access on their own – things like child care, help for seniors and immigrants.

“Typically, most of those issues are about housing,” Hubbard said.

Basket of goods

The Greater Vancouver Food Bank is by no means exempt from the inflation that is sending so many more people to their door, with their vendors charging 10 to 50 per cent more for products as they too have seen their costs rise. Although, every dollar that comes in is stretched well beyond what it can do in the hands of regular consumers.

“Whatever you and I could buy in the grocery store, the food bank can at least double that,” she said. “If we’re talking fresh produce from a farm, it can be five to one, eight to one or nine to one. The financial donations are so valuable,” Boulter said.

It so happens that the Greater Vancouver Food Bank is on the eve of one of their largest fundraisers, the annual Mayors’ Food Bank Challenge, in which local mayors are pressed into friendly competition to see who can shore up the most donations.

A terrible thing to waste

Boulter said she and her colleagues aren’t sure what to make of reports about record profits in Canada’s grocery retail chains, adding they are less interested in ascribing blame and more focused on seeing that no food goes to waste.

Canada produces enough food for 52 million people annually, but we only have a population of about 38 million, Boulter said. About $6 billion worth of food goes to waste each year in B.C. alone. Much of what the food banks can provide is donated by industry and non-profits that work to divert perfectly nutritious food from the garbage bin before it’s too late, she noted.

“There just isn’t any reason why people should be hungry or kids should be going to bed hungry in B.C. or across Canada,” she said. “There is enough food. It’s about getting it into the hands of people who need it.”

On the more local level, Hubbard said she’s especially proud of their sharing garden program, which has volunteers tend vegetable gardens on land provided by the municipalities. Last year, they grew almost 2,300 kilograms of fresh produce for locals who otherwise might not have access to any.

Hubbard said North Shore Neighbourhood House has never had volunteers fail to answer a call for help, but the more people who step up, the more good they’ll be able to accomplish together.

“Those are great initiatives and not that hard,” she said.

Real solutions

As bad as things are now, Boulter said there is no reason for optimism that things will improve, at least not on their own. Food banks are the tourniquet, not the cure, she noted.

“Based on what we’ve seen, the things that need to be addressed are the root causes of poverty, and that’s largely a government issue to address,” she said.

Food Banks Canada advocates for a universal basic income. Rapid growth in food bank usage came after the federal government wound down the pandemic-era CERB program, Boulter noted. Other forms of fixed incomes like disability, social assistance and old age security need to be indexed to inflation, she said, and minimum wages that are too low to survive on need to be replaced with living wages.

“Until there are some significant changes in the way people live here in Canada, and earn, and receive funding and support, I don’t see things changing much,” she said.

Hubbard specifically praised the provincial and federal government programs creating $10-per-day child care.

“That’s the saving of over $1,200 a month for a person with an infant or toddler,” she said. “That’s like winning the lottery.”

For others who are in a position to help, Hubbard has an “appeal to empathy.”

“If you’re an employer, think about some of those stresses that are happening for families right now,” she said. “It’s your community, right?”

As bleak as the outlook is, Boulter said the staff and volunteers are the food bank remain committed. Each tummy filled represents, in a sense, a life saved. And no one regrets asking for help.

“When people do come and get their food, they generally walk away with a smile,” she said. “That’s what we’re here for and that’s what we’ll keep doing.”