Average Manitoba food bank user is a 50-year-old woman, new report suggests

A first-of-its-kind report says 80 per cent of Manitoba food banks clients who responded to a questionnaire are living well below Canada’s poverty line, and the majority of them are women.

Harvest Manitoba — which runs a network of 325 food banks and agencies — conducted a questionnaire of nearly 400 clients in October and November 2020, asking 67 questions about their demographics, income, health and food insecurity. Food bank clients were invited to participate by phone, flyers inserted in their hampers, posters at the food bank and social media posts.

The number 1 reason respondents said they used the food bank was because they didn’t have enough income to make ends meet. Most earned less than $20,000 a year.

“Food prices and everything are rising,” said Lyndie Bright, a food bank client. She volunteers twice a week at Harvest, helping with office work and welcoming people at the door.

“When I’m here, I can take home bread or water, sometimes some vegetables, and that makes a difference in the budget. Because I’m on a fixed income, and it’s pension,” she said.

“I can’t see myself getting employment at 70.”

Lyndie Bright, a volunteer with Harvest Manitoba, is on a pension and uses the food bank to help with her grocery bill. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Only 13 per cent of respondents who use food banks were employed. The top reasons they said they couldn’t work were illness, disability, age or because they are caregivers.

A report on the questionnaire, called Harvest Voices, says two-thirds of food bank clients who responded were women. More than half were single, two-thirds did not have dependent children, and on average, they were 49½ years old.

The charity said it believes women were overly represented because they are more likely to have part-time and low-paying jobs than men. 

Many mothers were also impacted when schools and daycares closed due to the pandemic, forcing them to stop working to stay home to care for their children.

“Some folks did cite job loss … as why they would use us,” said Meaghan Erbus, Harvest’s senior manager of community food network and advocacy.

Indigenous people made up one-third of food bank clients in the report, despite only being 12 per cent of Winnipeg’s population.

Hungry multiple times a week

Harvest also asked clients about what prompted them to start using a food bank, which isn’t something they usually ask.

“When folks want to come and access food from us, we ask them minimal questions because asking for help is hard,” Erbus said. “So we decided to do the report to dig a little deeper.”

Many spoke about being in dire financial circumstances and having exhausted all other options before registering with Harvest. Many borrowed money, maxed out credit cards and sold property to pay their bills.

More than a quarter of respondents told Harvest they went hungry multiple times a week because they couldn’t afford to eat.

Meaghan Erbus with Harvest Manitoba is behind a new report looking at why people access food banks in the province. She hopes it will give Manitobans a better picture of food insecurity. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Erbus said they had hoped to conduct questionnaires in person, but had to switch to online and phone responses to respect pandemic protocols. They hope to change that in future questionnaires, and reach more clients in northern Manitoba and families who might not have been able to fill out the questionnaire during the daytime.

Still, she hopes the report findings will help guide government policy on all levels.

“Hunger looks different for everybody. It may affect me or you. We wouldn’t really know unless we ask the question, right?”

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