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High grocery prices hit Cape Breton harder than mainland N.S., food bank usage shows

Staff and volunteers at the Salvation Army food bank in Sydney prepare for the Christmas distribution.  (Holly Conners/CBC - image credit)
Staff and volunteers at the Salvation Army food bank in Sydney prepare for the Christmas distribution. (Holly Conners/CBC - image credit)

Food bank usage in Nova Scotia is up 26 per cent over last year, but that figure rises to 50 per cent in Cape Breton, says Feed Nova Scotia executive director Nick Jennery.

It's even worse in the island's largest community.

"In Sydney, we're seeing a 75 to 80 per cent increase in the number of clients year over year, as opposed to that 50 per cent," Jennery said. "So the more that you move out from 'quote' the urban areas, the less of an increase that you're seeing.

"But all the numbers are really at an unacceptably and frighteningly high level."

Last week, Jennery was in front of MLAs at the legislature in Halifax raising the alarm about the increase in food bank usage.

In an interview, he said the charity supports 16 food banks in Cape Breton and they all have computer software that provides weekly reports.

Nick Jennery, executive director of Feed Nova Scotia, made a passionate plea to the Standing Committee and Community Services on Thursday as food banks are under mounting pressure.
Nick Jennery, executive director of Feed Nova Scotia, made a passionate plea to the Standing Committee and Community Services on Thursday as food banks are under mounting pressure.

Nick Jennery, executive director of Feed Nova Scotia, made a passionate plea to MLAs on the provincial government's standing committee on community services last Thursday as food banks are under mounting pressure. (Dan Jardine/CBC)

Surveys of those who access food banks show that 53 per cent of clients across the province cite the cost of food as one reason for food insecurity.

But that number jumps to 69 per cent in Cape Breton, Jennery said.

Across the province, 24 per cent cited the cost of housing as a concern, but only four per cent of Cape Bretoners said the same thing, Jennery said.

"Clearly, the cost of food on the island is a bigger issue than it is provincewide, if you ask the people needing support," he said.

The numbers also show that in addition to a 50 per cent increase in first-time food bank users in Cape Breton, the total number of visits was up by 33 per cent.

Jennery said Feed Nova Scotia distributes food across the province based on need determined by the weekly usage numbers.

An income issue, says Jennery 

The charity sends two five-tonne trucks a week to Cape Breton and Jennery said he'd send more if he had it, but as he told MLAs last week, that's not the answer.

"We cannot feed our way out of this crisis, so stop depending on charities and food banks to be the solution and getting food to people, because it's not a food issue, it's an income issue," Jennery said.

Politicians need to quickly increase income levels across the province and then consult with local organizations to target aid where it's needed most, he said.

JoAnna LaTulippe-Rochon agrees.

The executive director of the Cape Breton Family Place Resource Centre, which offers a variety of programs to help parents and caregivers, said she's not surprised to see an increase in food bank usage.

She said the cost of everything has gone up, but the grocery bill is making life harder for people.

JoAnna LaTulippe-Rochon is the executive director of Cape Breton Family Place Resource Centre.
JoAnna LaTulippe-Rochon is the executive director of Cape Breton Family Place Resource Centre.

JoAnna LaTulippe-Rochon is the executive director of Cape Breton Family Place Resource Centre. (CBC)

"We are seeing families that we haven't seen struggle before certainly struggling with food and we're also seeing families that had been struggling maybe by the third or the last week of the month, now struggling closer to the middle of the month," LaTulippe-Rochon said.

"On the income side, we're not able to keep the same pace as on the expense side.

"At the end of the day, it costs dollars and cents to purchase food and if you don't have enough of those dollars, you're just not going to have enough to make it through to the end of the month."

LaTulippe-Rochon also said people need to be cautious about blaming parents for making bad choices.

Family Place Resource Centre helps people with budgets and the executive director said clients could probably teach others a thing or two about living with tight finances.

"If I were looking for tips and tricks to make the money that I have stretch, I would go to the people that are living in very limited income situations. They are masters at making those dollars stretch.

"But there does come a point where the dollar simply can't stretch any further and unfortunately, there's too much month left at the end of the money."

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