Record numbers turn to food banks

Mustard Seed reports 44 per cent increase in demand in one year

The number of people turning to B.C. food banks for help has reached record levels, a new report shows.

Nearly 90,000 people -- one-third of them children -- visited a food bank in March, Food Bank Canada says in HungerCount 2009.

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That's a 15 per cent increase over March 2008, and it mirrors a similar 18 per cent rise nation-wide -- the largest year-over-year jump in more than a decade.

The numbers were even more dramatic in Victoria, where the Mustard Seed Food Bank reports a 44 per cent increase. The bank now serves 1,700 children and 5,500 adults every month.

"Too many Canadians are struggling, and this is unacceptable in a wealthy country such as ours," the report says.

Front-line workers at B.C. food banks blamed the economic recession, mill closures and layoffs for the jump in demand.

In Victoria, Mustard Seed director Brent Palmer said a number of new users have moved to the city from rural areas in search of work and met with little success. The added strain on the food bank is forcing officials to get more aggressive with fundraising, he said.

"We're constantly in the face of the public just to keep our heads above water."

It's a similar story in Sidney, where the Lions Food Bank reports a 20 per cent increase in demand at the same time that food donations are tailing off.

"We think it's the average Joe -- the ones that used to donate to us -- that are the ones finding themselves in tough times," said administrator Beverley Elder.

Both Elder and Palmer worry about their ability to meet the increased demand at Christmas. The food banks, along with the Times Colonist Christmas Fund, are member agencies of the Christmas Bureau. The bureau gathers names of the needy, while the agencies raise money and distribute hampers and food vouchers.

"What do we do if we can't keep up with the demand?" asked Palmer. "I don't have the answer to that."

To help, the University of Victoria yesterday announced plans to waive library and parking fines in exchange for donations to the Mustard Seed and UVic Students' Society food banks. Library users will have their fines reduced by $2 -- to a maximum of $20 -- for every donated non-perishable food item from Nov. 23 to Dec. 11. Donations can be dropped off at the McPherson Library or the Curriculum Library in the MacLaurin Building.

Campus Security Services, meanwhile, will reduce parking-ticket fines by $5 for a donation of a non-perishable food item dropped off at the security building near the UVic bookstore from Dec. 1 to Dec. 24.

lkines@tc.canwest.com

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HOW TO DONATE

- Mail a cheque to the Times Colonist Christmas Fund, 2621 Douglas St., Victoria, B.C. V8T 4M2.

- Use your credit card by phoning 250-995-4438.

- Donate online through our partnership with the Queen Alexandra Foundation at www.queenalexandra.org

Donations to the fund are used to buy groceries and children's toys for people in need.

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