As inflation rises and pandemic supports ebb, food insecurity grows

· The Pulse

Food insecurity is again on the rise in Edmonton, and now providers and people in need are without the government supports that helped them cope with demand during the pandemic.

"We hear from any agency we work with that demand is up, and they're asking for more," said Cory Rianson, executive director of the Leftovers Foundation, an organization that connects agencies and donors to redirect food and prevent food waste. "We have agencies waiting in every city we're in, so we have by far more requests for food than we are able to manage. And that only seems to be going up."

Tamisan Bencz-Knight, manager of strategic relationships and partnerships for Edmonton's Food Bank, said that she has also noticed more requests for assistance since the spring, but said it was unclear yet whether this would be a blip or a longer trend.

The rate of food inflation is the highest it has been since Edmonton's Food Bank opened 41 years ago. On average, Canadians are now paying 9.8% more for groceries than they did last year, with inflation, shortages, supply-chain issues, and retail markups that some have called "profiteering" all hitting consumers.

"The cost of food is rising to levels not seen in generations, and this means that more people in our community are being stretched to consider whether to pay their rent or heating bill, or buy food," Michael Capus, chairperson of Edmonton's Food Bank, said in the organization's annual report.

During the pandemic, food banks received additional funding from the federal government and the province to assist with increased demand. The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) program kept many out-of-work Canadians from ever having to use a food bank. Those grants and supports have now dried up, but the need for them hasn't gone away.

"We're still seeing relatively high demand and high need in community because we have moved on to the inflationary pressures right now. But even outside of those inflationary pressures, the economic damage of COVID still exists," said Rianson, who also sits on the board of Food Banks Alberta and was previously the executive director of a food bank. "And I think (for) people who were precariously employed, or struggling, or who took on debt, or whose financial situation was affected through COVID, there aren't those same supports because the consensus is the emergency is gone. But you have the lasting ramifications of that event."

A person speaks to a masked worker from Edmonton's Food Bank at an outdoor station

The effects of the pandemic are still being felt by low-income people and service agencies in Edmonton, and now inflationary pressures are compounding food insecurity in the city. (Edmonton's Food Bank 2021 Annual Report)

Edmonton's Food Bank saw a dramatic upsurge at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, driven in part by the uncertainty and panic that characterized the early months of the crisis.

"In March, people were panic-buying in the regular community, which trickled into other panicking moments for people with low income," Bencz-Knight remembered. "Whereas somebody that has money, they would go shop and stockpile, people that didn't have the money, they may have come to us twice that month, to try to get extra food in the house."

The number of people using the food bank plateaued in the months that followed, thanks in part to CERB, Bencz-Knight said. Food banks across the country observed similar declines in demand when the income support program was rolled out.

For Rianson, this is a real-world example of the cause and possible solution to food insecurity.

"The problem isn't that there isn't enough food. The problem is poverty. The problem is people don't have money to buy food. And I think you've seen a clear indication of that through COVID with CERB coming out, where you see food bank usage just plummet across the board, across Canada in all kinds of regions."

Worries over public spending during COVID and the Canadian Revenue Agency clawing back CERB payments may make this an unlikely time to consider a Universal Basic Income in Canada, but a University of Toronto food insecurity research project called PROOF suggests such a program would be more cost-effective than the piecemeal array of agencies currently tasked with curbing hunger.

PROOF's research has shown that taxpayers are already paying for food insecurity in hidden health care and administrative costs. Food insecure people are 69% more likely to be hospitalized for acute care, and inadequate social assistance programs actually put people at a greater risk of food insecurity. Amalgamating existing programs into a single entity would be less "bureaucratically burdensome" and cheaper to operate, Rianson suggested.

Food bank use only scratches the surface of food insecurity in Canada. For every person who collects a food hamper, there are three more who are food insecure and not accessing those services. Food banks help alleviate hunger for hundreds of thousands of Canadians each year, but they aren't designed or equipped to address underlying causes. Forty-one years after Canada's first food bank opened in Edmonton, this new wave of demand may be a reason to rethink our approaches to poverty and hunger.

"We try to use food waste to solve food insecurity. But that's one that does not work. And that's what we've been doing for 40-plus years," Rianson said. "It doesn't work. It's an emergency solution. In reality, we've been in an emergency response for decades at this point, but it is in no way a solution."