Burnaby and beyond: Food bank seeing ‘unprecedented’ growth in clients due to inflation
While just half a decade ago, the Greater Vancouver Food Bank had about 6,000 clients, it's now seeing 1,000 new clients per month.
“Unprecedented” is the first word that comes to mind for Greater Vancouver Food Bank chief operating officer Cynthia Boulter when considering food security today.
The pandemic had already stretched pocketbooks after leaving many people unemployed or underemployed. Now, as the economy bounces back from that, generational-high inflation rates are stretching bank accounts even further.
While gas prices continued to climb, October’s inflation rate held steady at 6.9% over the same period in 2021, the same rate as was seen in September, according to the Globe and Mail. That’s somewhat eased from the nearly four-decade high of 8.1% seen in June.
While energy prices climbed again last month, the Globe and Mail reported that grocery prices grew slower, helping to ease overall inflation.
Such high inflation rates are hitting people’s pocketbooks hard, and it’s been a top talking point in Parliament, with both the NDP and the Conservatives coming after the Liberals’ economic update from both sides—the former seeking more support for households in need, and the latter calling for no increases in spending.
And Boulter said the affordability issue is certainly being felt in Metro Vancouver.
“We are seeing, in terms of the Greater Vancouver Food Bank, almost 1,000 clients have signed up every month for the last four months, which is unlike anything we have ever seen,” Boulter said.
That, she said, is net new clients, on top of existing clients.
“When I started, say four-and-a-half years ago, we were serving around 6,000 people a month. We’re up to 13-14,000 a month now, and understandably, that is climbing with all of these new clients that we are seeing,” she said.
That’s all within the food bank’s catchment area, which includes New West, Burnaby, Vancouver, and the North Shore.
While the pandemic drove more people to the food bank, she said the “most aggressive influx” came since the summer.
She said there are three major reasons they’ve heard from new clients that they are signing up for the food bank, and that includes being new immigrants, being newly unable to keep up with the cost of living, and being an international student.
Universities such as SFU and UBC charge vastly higher tuition fees for international students than they do for domestic students, something that has driven post-secondary institutions across Canada to scour the globe for new international students.
And international students often struggle to keep up with costs, especially with laws that ban them from working more than 20 hours a week—though those restrictions have recently been, at least temporarily, lifted by the Liberals.
She added that the food bank is now also hearing, from immigrants with language barriers, “quite a few really disappointing, nightmarish stories about being taken advantage of by landlords and apartments in terrible conditions.”
“The other thing that is tough for people who are new to the country, with what’s happening with the economy and inflation, … the savings that they may have had in Chile or Brazil are being depleted, but they’re also worth less than they thought once they convert them now, with the state of the economy,” she said.
The increased workload, Boulter said, is also putting a strain on the food bank, particularly in its volunteer capacity.
“We do have some vacancies, and we talk about … when is it at a point where we can’t keep up with it anymore?” she said.
“We are not there, and we’re grateful for that.”
But not all organizations are keeping up, she said. She couldn’t share which individuals or communities, but said some community agencies the food bank works with have stopped taking on new clients.
Others still are closing their services to some demographics and sending them to the food bank directly, though some may already be food bank clients, she said.
“Frankly, that alarms me. It’s one thing to say, ‘We can’t take on any more,’ but it’s another to say, ‘We’re going to cut back, and we’re going to send you our clients,’” she said.
While there has been a strain on the demand side, Boulter said the supply side has so far managed to keep up at the food bank.
Of the food bank’s food donations, 60% is fresh food, she said.
“We have been able to continue the growth of those donations through the pandemic, which has been amazing, and that’s with existing donors as well as by bringing on some new donors,” she said.
“It comes with work. … But that’s been a real success, and wonderful to see the quality of food coming in.”