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The number of people turning to food banks to keep meals on the table is growing, raising questions about food security in the province that's home to Canada's most expensive city.

More than 103,400 people visited food banks in B.C. in March 2016 alone, according to Food Banks Canada’s annual hunger count, released in November.

That’s almost a 33 per cent increase from 2008, when just over 78,000 British Columbians accessed food banks. About 32 per cent of users in March were children.

The pattern in B.C. follows a common trend across Canada. On average, the nation has seen a nearly 28 per cent increase in food bank use since 2008, with more than 863,000 Canadians accessing food banks in March 2016. In the past year alone, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia have seen the number of people visiting food banks increase by more than 17 per cent.

In Canada’s North, the problem is even more striking. Collectively, the territories have seen a 25 per cent increase in food bank use in a single year.

Shawn Pegg, the director of policy and research at Food Banks Canada, told the CBC that the increase in B.C. is linked to the high cost of living and a lack of high-paying jobs.

“We see people working two or three part-time jobs and still being unable to make ends meet,” he said.

But there’s more to food security than simply having enough to eat. Canada’s Action Plan for Food Security, published in 1998, defines food security as existing when people “have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”

UBC’s Hannah Wittman, an associate professor of land and food systems, has said that food security is “the idea that everyone should have access to sufficient amounts of healthy and culturally appropriate food.”

Vancouver’s food strategy, approved in 2013, also states that healthy food should be accessible “within a reasonable walking, transit or cycling distance.”

The strategy also makes a clear link between food security and sustainability. One of Vancouver’s Greenest City Action Plan targets is to increase local food assets by 50 per cent between 2010 and 2020. The food strategy’s goals include measures to promote urban farming, community gardens and local food markets.

“The ways we produce, access, prepare, eat and dispose of food are directly linked to our quality of life, vibrancy of our neighbourhoods and sustainability of our city,” it reads.

Food Banks Canada included a number of recommendations in its November report, including the creation of a national poverty reduction strategy by October 2017, the establishment of a basic livable income and the redesign of the welfare system to allow people to earn more income from work without having their benefits reduced.

In the wake of the report, some have also called on the B.C. government to develop its own poverty reduction strategy, as it is the only province currently without one.

One thing that does seem clear is that food banks aren’t the solution to food insecurity. In a 2015 column for the Vancouver Sun, UBC professor emeritus Graham Riches claimed that 500,000 British Columbians experienced food insecurity in 2012, more than five times the number that visited food banks. And those numbers are on the rise.

“There is no evidence that food banking has reduced food insecurity in B.C., let alone Canada,” Riches argued.

Maura Forrest, 8 December 2016