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Food bank use in Canada remains well above 2008 recession levels: report

OTTAWA - The number of Canadians depending on charity for food continues to grow, a new study being released today has found.

More than 882,000 Canadians used a food bank in March 2012, up 2.4 per cent from last year, says the annual study by Food Banks Canada.

The number of people using meal programs -- where meals are prepared and served -- also jumped 23 per cent from last year, the study found. It says food bank usage is up 31 per cent since the start of the 2008 recession.

"We were hopeful that we'd start to see things level off, but that's not the case," said Katharine Schmidt, Food Banks Canada's executive director.

The report paints a shifting picture of hunger across Canada -- one in which the number of people who are hungry remains the same, but where they live is constantly changing.

About half of the 4,500 food programs surveyed reported an increase in food bank use, while half reported a decrease or no change, the study revealed.

"These findings suggest the economic health of communities can change drastically in a short period of time," the report said.

In 2009 and 2010, a large majority of food banks saw an increase, but the split in the last year reflects the fact that some communities saw their economic situation improve, while conditions worsened elsewhere.

Alberta, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec and the Territories all saw a decrease in food bank use between 2011 and 2012, with the biggest drop coming in Alberta.

But at the heart of Canada's resource economy, food bank use is still 59 per cent higher than it was prior to the recession.

Manitoba and P.E.I. saw the biggest jumps in food bank use last year.

The association has been taking a snapshot of food bank and meal program use across Canada for 16 years.

The results help form the most-up-to-date picture of poverty in Canada; Statistics Canada reported in 2009 that about 3.2 million people now live in low income households, including 634,000 children.

That was up slightly from the year before.

In terms of demographics, users of food banks have tended to remain the same year-over-year.

Children and youth make up 38 per cent of food bank users, while people on social assistance, First Nations and single parent families also experience high levels of need.

This year's report found that in March, nearly 93,000 people used a food bank for the first time.

"Though it is a common belief that the same individuals and families utilize food banks month after month and year, in fact for most it is an emergency resource used for a short period of time," the report said.

"When a person using a food bank gets back on a firm economic standing, their place in line is taken by another person who needs help putting food on their table."

What's needed to drive the numbers down is a smarter approach to getting people back on their feet, Schmidt said.

"Our current government has done its best to manage through a very difficult period," she said. "But the hunger count shows there is still more to do."

The report makes five recommendations, including investing in more affordable housing to ensure people don't have to make the choice between rent and food.

It also calls for more investment in education and training for those unable to access employment benefits, while beefing up income supplements for seniors to keep them above the poverty line.

Stephanie Levitz reports for The Canadian Press.

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