Food banks across Canada are facing a crisis. More people than ever, from people working two jobs to students, are turning to food banks for the first time ever. 

This increase is pushing these vital services to their limits. One-third of this year’s visitors at Hamilton’s central food bank supplier were first-time users, reflecting a troubling national trend of rising food bank dependency.

The latest report from Hamilton’s Food Share, the emergency food shipping and receiving hub, highlighted a 40% increase in overall service demand. 

Ashley Mitchell, the resource development manager, pointed out that not only are first-time visitors on the rise, but long-term users are also frequenting more than ever.

“Families, individuals, couples, and not only just people that are experiencing hunger, but also people that have full-time jobs, have part-time jobs,” Mitchell said to Global News. “These are people that haven’t necessarily needed the food bank system before and maybe aren’t the type of person you typically think of that are leaning on a food bank.”

Hamilton Food Share’s 2023 Hunger Report showed that nearly half (46%) of the households surveyed would face homelessness if they did not receive assistance from the food bank.

Meanwhile, 58% of households spend more than half of their income on rent alone.

Regions across Ontario, including Waterloo, echo this dire situation, with some reporting up to a 43% increase in food bank usage. Kim Wilhelm, interim CEO of the Waterloo Region Food Bank, disclosed a worrying 200% rise in student users alone.

As previously reported by True North, International students studying in Canada on student visas are filming themselves going to food banks to get “free food”, as a way to save money. These students are telling their followers that this is a normal and acceptable thing to do. Canadians who donate to food banks are intending that it goes to those in need, not to international students with enough money to pay international tuition fees.

Heading further East, New Brunswick has seen a similar sharp increase, Stephane Sirois, Executive Director of Food Depot Alimentaire in New Brunswick, told True North.

“The system was not designed to support this volume of demand. We are close to a breaking point,” said Sirois. 

He said that the trend of over one-third of food bank users being first-time users in Hamilton was a similar situation to that of New Brunswick. He added that more working-class people are visiting food banks, with seniors on a fixed income seeing a significant increase.

“We’re not seeing any signs of reversing the trend in the near future. In the next couple of years, numerous Canadians will have to renew their mortgage at a much higher interest rate. This will put even more families over the edge and make them vulnerable to food insecurity,” said Sirois. 

According to Sirois the challenges around housing should be the top priority. The added financial burden of paying more for rent and mortgages are causing a lot of financial stress on individuals and families, he added. 

Central provinces have seen similar issues. Manitoba has seen a rise of 30% in Food Bank users over the past year, confirmed John Heim, Senior Manager of Marketing & Communications with Harvest Manitoba. In 2023, he said that 40% of food bank users in Manitoba are employed. 

It’s even worse in Western Canada. 

In British Columbia, the number of visits to Food Banks since March 2019 has increased 57%. In rural communities with populations of 10,000 and under, that number of visits increased to 101%.

Since 2022, the cost-of-living crisis has been the main contributor to food insecurity in B.C., Dan Huang-Taylor, Executive Director of Food Banks BC, told True North. The cost of goods at the supermarket, mortgage, and interest rates have pushed people who were close to the poverty line beneath it, he added.

“This has resulted in more people turning to food banks than we’ve ever seen in the 40-year history that we’ve operated in B.C.,” said Huang-Taylor. 

Clients visiting food banks in B.C. who cite job income as a primary source of income are now higher than any other client group — higher than people on social assistance or pensions. 

“We’re seeing this alarming trend of people who are working full time, maybe two jobs, and they’re still not able to make ends meet,” said Huang-Taylor. 

He added that some food banks, specifically those in smaller demographics, may have to consider starting to scale back services. Many food banks are seeing drops in donations of 30-40% of both monetary and food, said Huang-Taylor. Food banks also pay more for the food themselves, experiencing the same pinch at the supermarket as their clientele.

Food banks hold onto contingency funds to tackle emergencies that arise. Given the rise in demand, some food banks have had to use these reserves to meet the surge.