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UBC students waiting in a line at AMS food bank. Photo: Megavarshini G. Somasundaram

Newcomers increasingly turning to food banks in Canada

Newcomers are likely to have unstable jobs, irregular work hours, inadequate housing, and lesser medical benefits, leaving them vulnerable to rapid inflation.

By Megavarshini G. Somasundaram , in Health , on April 5, 2024 Tags: , , , ,

Tahreem Maahmood now limits herself to two meals and a snack per day instead of three meals like she used to before moving to Canada. That’s the only way the final-year food sciences student at the University of B.C. feels like she can manage her finances as she couldn’t manage to get a job this year.

“I must pay my tuition, house rent, medical insurance, and then groceries. While my parents pay my tuition, I don’t want to pressure them on my living expenses. I need to manage my finances in terms of food and rent,” she said.

Maahmood is one among the thousands of newcomers across the country, including immigrants, refugees, and international students, who are lining up in ever greater numbers at food banks to meet their monthly grocery needs.

“The proportion of newcomers to Canada accessing food banks significantly increased from last year – where they comprised 17.2 per cent of food clients – and has more than doubled compared to 2016 – when they comprised 12.5 per cent of clients,” said a March 2023 study from Food Banks Canada. The latest numbers show that 26.6 per cent of food-bank users are in the newcomer category. The annual HungerCount report by Food Banks Canada is based on surveys sent to food security organizations, tracking their usage every year.

The study found that newcomers are likely to have unstable jobs, irregular work hours, inadequate housing, and lower medical benefits, leaving them vulnerable to rapid inflation.

Experts say that the data from food banks shows only the tip of the iceberg.

“The report only accounts for individuals and communities who have access to food bank resources – leaving out a significant portion of people who do not go to food banks and still experience food insecurity,” said Jennifer Black, an associate professor at UBC’s faculty of land and food systems.

Black said that food insecurity is really a sign that people are largely experiencing other forms of poverty and a lack of stable access to the income they need to meet a variety of needs. “The strongest predictor of food insecurity is income, both in terms of source and quantity of income,” she said.

Inflation accelerated throughout 2022–2023 at levels not seen in 40 years, and the cost of essentials such as transportation, food, and housing increased.

Source: Food Banks Canada

In March 2023, almost two million people used food banks – a 32-per-cent increase from the previous year’s numbers. With living costs skyrocketing – food bank usage rose to its highest since the survey started in 1989.

Maahmood, who is from Pakistan, said food banks cover her monthly provisions.

“I visit the food bank four-five times a month, and they cover my staples: rice, produce, milk, and eggs,” said Maahmood. She manages to limit her grocery expenses to $85 per month. “Initially, I had a $100 budget and relying on food banks has helped me reduce my expenses.”

Source: Food Banks Canada

Since day one of moving to Canada, food has always been a source of stress for Maahmood. It has taken a toll on her, both physically and mentally. While most people tend to lose weight due to a lack of healthy food, Mahmood’s body reacts differently to hunger and stress.

“I have gained two kilograms due to undereating and stress surrounding food prices,” she said.

While that may seem contradictory, experts say it’s what can happen as the body struggles with too few calories.

“Eating fewer calories can cause your metabolic rate to slow down, meaning you may gain weight more easily,” reads a report from Nutrisense.

While food banks cover Maahmood’s staples, they do not provide meat. Meat is essential to maintaining a healthy weight but is expensive making it unaffordable for many in Canada.  According to a poll conducted by Ipsos in July 2023, 47 per cent of meat-eaters polled said they planned to cut back on their meat consumption this year, with cost the most common reason for doing so.

Maahmood said, “Back in Pakistan, I ate chicken every single day. Here, I consume chicken twice a month, as meat, especially halal meat, is expensive.”

She tries to compensate for her inadequate protein intake by depending on eggs, tofu, and canned lentils she receives from the food bank.

Volunteers working with the food banks say that they aren’t necessarily the solution.

“People are in long queues, and they end up getting nothing as food banks don’t come with endless food supplies,” said Hannah Kahn, a board member of the Sprouts, an organization that aims to tackle the increasing problem of food insecurity, especially among students at UBC.

“Since the produce is donation-based, we get a limited supply and, in most instances, it runs out. We have faced issues when we run out of produce, and we’ve seen people get upset, which is reasonable. Again, it is hard for us because it is not something we can fix,” she said.

Kahn said they have never turned anyone away, but they are not providing as much as she wishes they did.

According to Statistics Canada‘s Canadian Income Survey, 17.8 per cent of households in the 10 provinces of Canada experienced food insecurity in 2022. This translates to approximately 6.9 million Canadians, including almost 1.8 million children under 18 who were living in households faced some level of food insecurity.

Source: Food Banks Canada

More than a quarter per cent of food bank users are newcomers to Canada

Experts also say that food banks are not an effective way to deal with the rising issue of food insecurity.

Jennifer Black. Photo: Associate Professor, Food, Nutrition and Health

“Forty years of data around food insecurity denote that relying on food banks, charities, and non-profits is inefficient. Food banks are trying, and their systems are not equipped to meet people’s needs. The food prices have only escalated,” Black said.

She urged that the government of Canada need efficient and robust social policies that ensure people living in Canada have the fundamental income and access to satiate their food requirements.

Researchers are devising novel ways to combat and build healthy conversations around food insecurity.

Black and her fellow scholars have built HungryStories, a platform that presents, teaches, and advocates on the topic of food insecurity. “We need to start investing in solutions. Through HungryStories, we aim to change the narratives we tell communities on food security and hope for policymakers to enact and create a change in the ground,” she said.