Poverty in Winnipeg: Food bank usage shows scope of poverty in the city

One of the more concerning adages that rings true in our city today is “the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.” 

A telling example of this is the visible growth in the usage of food banks in Winnipeg. 

Winnipeg Harvest currently serves more than 48,000 people, over half of which are under the age of 18. 

According to David Northcott, executive director of Winnipeg Harvest, there has been a 21 per cent jump in food bank usage in Manitoba over the past year. 

It is important to remember that Winnipeg continues to be the child poverty capital of Canada, in large part due to our large, poor aboriginal population. More than 17 per cent of children (nearly one in five) live in poverty.

One of the more disturbing arguments concerning the use of food banks and poverty rates comes from the policy analysts from the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a group that receives a lot of press in Winnipeg. 

They suggest that overall poverty rates in Canada are going down, not up – from 14.8 per cent in 1993 to 9.4 per cent in 1998.

But, as Northcott says, “This flies in the face of the reality we see every day at Winnipeg Harvest and the 320 neighbourhood agencies that Harvest works with.”

Even if overall poverty rates are dropping, there are other factors that impact families and poverty. 

For example, people who are chronically ill often require special diets that cost more money – costs that are not taken into account by the government. 

We also know that both welfare and minimum wage (affecting the poor and working poor) fall far below minimum standards of living wages. 

Overall welfare rates have not increased since 1992, in spite of inflation. In fact, a single employable person receives $481 per month. The amount of welfare for shelter is less than half of what is required. 

People dip into their food budget to pay for rent, clothing and school supplies. This leaves them in need of services like Winnipeg Harvest.

There have been reports in media over the years about people abusing Winnipeg Harvest – that the food they are given is not being used properly. 

Consequently, there has been some talk that Winnipeg Harvest should apply “means testing” to those who apply for food.

But who are we to tell people how to use the food Harvest gives them? We don’t make moral judgements, and if someone requests food, we assume it is because they need it. 

After all, it’s not an easy thing to do to ask for food when you can’t put enough on your own table.

According to Northcott, “Winnipeg Harvest offers the attraction of hope and other services to families, including employment training, counselling and income tax returns. We do so to reduce food bank use by enhancing people’s strength and independence.”

Empowering low income people—what a concept!

Winnipeg Harvest would love to be able to close its doors. However, until all levels of government make poverty a priority issue on their agendas, the rich will continue to get richer and the poor will continue to get poorer.

Nick Ternette is an activist, freelance writer and broadcaster who volunteers with Winnipeg Harvest.

This is part of the Poverty in Winnipeg feature. Its companion pieces are “The age of poverty on Selkirk Avenue” by Lauren Parsons (http://uniter.ca/view/6246/) and “Recognizing women’s poverty” by Erin Vosters (http://uniter.ca/view/6247/) .

Published in Volume 65, Number 25 of The Uniter (March 31, 2011)

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