Despite a small dip in the past year, the use of food banks in Manitoba remains sky high, and the percentage of children relying on them is the highest in Canada.
Some 60,229 Manitobans used food banks last March, down 5.1 per cent from the previous year.
But the total was still a whopping 48.8 per cent higher than it was in 2008, a report by Food Banks Canada, which was released Tuesday, found.
Nationally, food-bank use was 23.3 per cent higher than it was five years earlier.
Close to 45 per cent of users in Manitoba were children, well above the Canadian average of 36.4 per cent.
'During a time of apparent economic recovery, far too many Canadians still struggle to put food on the table'
The number of Canadians living primarily on pension income made up seven per cent of food-bank users -- another concern of anti-poverty advocates.
"During a time of apparent economic recovery, far too many Canadians still struggle to put food on the table," the report said.
Experts say the persistently high usage rates stem from a lack of affordable housing, a growing number of low-paying jobs and rock-bottom social-assistance rates.
In Manitoba, 22.2 per cent of food-bank users were part of single-parent families, 26.6 per cent came from two-parent families and 36.9 per cent were single persons. More than half -- 51.1 per cent -- were on welfare.
Joey-Jayne Hyltun, 67, a former Winnipeg garment-industry worker, volunteers once a week at Winnipeg Harvest, where she is also a client.
"It gets very difficult to make ends meet," said Hyltun, who lives on her Canada Pension Plan and old age security payments. The senior also collects and cashes in pop cans and beer cans to supplement her income.
Hyltun is revolted when she sees reports of seniors forced to eat cheap cat or dog food because of their economic circumstances. She's determined not to become one of them.
"That is a disgrace," she said. "That's so sad."
Marla Somersall, chairwoman of the Manitoba Association of Food Banks, said her organization is pleased to see even a modest drop in food-bank use in the past year. But she said it's concerned about the long-term health consequences for the sizable number of Manitobans who are not getting their nutritional needs met.
Somersall said in Brandon, where she works, 24 per cent of all food-bank users are working people -- double the national rate. Manitoba's second-largest city has seen its population boom in recent years and unemployment there is low: "That, to me, says the cost of living, particularly housing, and the wage levels, are having a huge impact on the folks that we're serving here."
Across Canada, 833,098 people used food banks in March 2013 compared with 872,379 in March 2012.
Manitoba Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross said Tuesday she's heartened food-bank use has fallen in the past year, but she conceded much more work needs to be done to eradicate poverty and hunger.
Anti-poverty activists have long demanded the province raise social-assistance allowances, especially for housing. Many welfare recipients dip into their food allowance to pay the rent. But so far, the Selinger government has refused, saying it has increased other supports in an effort to get employment and income-assistance recipients back into the workforce.
Irvin-Ross said the provincial government was aware of the high number of children relying on food banks prior to the report's release on Tuesday.
She said the province is involved in the roundtable on child hunger and nutrition, which was initiated by Winnipeg Harvest and the Winnipeg Foundation. She said the roundtable is to bring recommendations to government shortly to address child hunger.
"It's a longer-term issue, but there are some short-term initiatives that we can put into place, and that's what we're going to look at," she said.
-- with files from Bruce Owen