OTTAWA -- Any way you slice it, the numbers are jarring.
More than 63,000 individual Manitobans could not afford to buy enough food last March, and had to turn to a food bank or a soup kitchen for help. It's an increase of nearly 8,000 people, or 14 per cent higher than the year before.
It's more people than live in Brandon and Steinbach combined. They could fill the MTS Centre four times over.
And almost half of them are children.
No other province saw that kind of increase in the number of individuals helped by a food bank. In fact, according to the annual report on food bank use released in Ottawa last week by Food Banks Canada, four provinces and the territories actually saw a decrease in the number of food bank users between March 2011 and March 2012.
Manitoba has the highest percentage of users who are children and, with the exception of Newfoundland and Labrador, which is slightly higher, Manitoba has the highest per capita use of food banks. However, Newfoundland and Labrador has seen a small decline in the last five years while Manitoba's food bank use has soared 57 per cent.
According to the provincial government, Manitoba's real gross domestic product grew on average more than any other province's between 2007 and 2011.
Unemployment is more than two points below the national average and the third lowest in the country. So what gives? Why are so many people in Manitoba going hungry compared to other provinces when our economy is, on paper, doing better?
Food bank use is a palpable indicator of how our economy is functioning for people.
While the latest unemployment numbers made an appearance Friday, more telling indicators may be the numbers on wages and inflation released a few days earlier.
The growth in average weekly earnings in Manitoba was smaller than in any other province in the last year.
The average weekly earnings in Manitoba were $838.12, higher than in four other provinces. But all four of the provinces with lower average weekly earnings -- Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Quebec -- outpaced Manitoba in wage growth. So did all the other provinces where people already earned more on average each week.
At the same time, Manitoba's inflation rate has matched or exceeded the national average for most of the last five years.
So wages are lower and growing more slowly than the national average but costs are going up at least as fast, sometimes faster, than the national average.
Marla Somersall, president of the Manitoba Association of Food Banks, said in her experience, this discrepancy is the main driver of the increased business at food banks. In Winnipeg, the cost of housing is the main driver. In rural areas, it's the price of gas and the impact it's having on the cost of food.
A spokesman for Premier Greg Selinger said the province does find the food bank numbers "troubling" and is taking a closer look at them. In the meantime they are emphasizing what's apparently working -- increasing the minimum wage, rent supports, and employment and income assistance. He noted Manitoba's low unemployment rate, that child poverty is down 28 per cent since 2000 and the number of low-income Manitobans is 16,000 people lower.
If all that is true, why then have an additional 20,000 individuals been forced to turn to a food bank for help since 2002?
Manitoba Conservative Leader Brian Pallister said last week the province is hurting the poorest Manitobans with tax hikes on gasoline and necessities such as haircuts and insurance. He also said the best driver of economic growth is consumer spending.
In wealthy Alberta, average weekly earnings are more than $200 above Manitoba's, there is no provincial sales tax and provincial income taxes are capped at 10 per cent for everyone. It's clear the average Albertan is going to have more money in their pocket to spend, which drives economic growth, creates jobs and in turn pushes incomes up.
If wage growth is barely keeping up to inflation, and taxes are rising, it's a lot harder to keep people spending and the economy growing.
Evidence of the impact that's having is right there in line at the food bank.
A population that cannot afford to feed itself is not a healthy population and the problems it will spin off for Manitoba society are many, from health care to crime rates and education limitations.
There are no easy answers to fix this problem but it deserves more than political rhetoric and partisan fighting. And it deserves a place at the agenda table now.