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Published November 8, 2023
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Using a Food Bank for the First Time: Answers to Common Questions

If you need food assistance, you might consider a local food bank. Here’s what you need to know before making your first visit.

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If inflation or rising housing costs have created a food shortage in your household, you’re not alone.

There were 1.9 million visits to the country’s food banks in March 2023 alone, according to this year’s HungerCount report from Food Banks Canada. That’s a 32% year-over-year increase and 79% more visits than in March 2019. 

Using a food bank is not a difficult process and is an option for virtually everyone in need. But that first visit can still be daunting, especially if you’re unsure how food assistance programs operate and whether you’re eligible to use them. 

To make sure you’re on a clear path to the support you need, here are answers to some common questions Canadians have about food banks. 

What kinds of people use food banks?

Short answer: All kinds.

“We get a lot of people who feel like they should be able to make it all on their own, and they’re really embarrassed about coming to the food bank,” says Rebecca Peterson, a client service representative at the Regina Food Bank.

But there’s no need for embarrassment. Food banks assist people across a mix of demographics and income levels: children and senior citizens, singles and two-parent families, social assistance recipients and full-time workers, renters and homeowners. 

Turning to a food bank isn’t a comment on who you are. It’s just the result of a situation you — and millions of others — currently find yourselves in. 

Am I eligible for food bank assistance?

Short answer: Almost certainly.

It is unlikely that you would be considered ineligible to receive aid at a food bank in Canada.

“I would say almost anyone in need can visit a food bank,” says Nick Johnson, manager, member services at Food Banks BC. The food relief association operates more than 100 agencies across British Columbia

Johnson says that income is not a determining factor at food banks in British Columbia. Some programs may occasionally ask for information related to income before they can commit to providing ongoing support.

“The real question that we ask is ‘Do you need help affording groceries?’” Peterson says. “If the honest answer to that is yes, you are eligible to receive help.”

Johnson says where you live won’t necessarily dictate where you can receive assistance either. A food bank may, however, want to confirm your address in case there’s a program located closer to your home. 

What’s the registration process like?

Short answer: Minimal.

You’ll have to register at your local food bank, but the process should be simple. It mostly serves administrative needs like tracking supplies and the number of people being assisted.

Arriving at a food bank for the first time without any identification shouldn’t prevent you from receiving food, Peterson says. Typically, you’ll have the option to return with the requested information later.

“There are a lot of first-timers, and they are pretty much never turned away without food unless they choose to do that and come back a different day,” she says.

Because you will be offered food on your first visit, it’s important to be able to transport it home, whether that’s by driving yourself, arranging a ride or, if you live within walking distance, by bringing a wheeled cart. 

Will using a food bank impact other support I receive?

Short answer: No.

If you’re receiving income support or disability payments from the government, food assistance should not impact your benefits. The same can be said for newcomers to Canada pursuing permanent residence: using charitable aid will not threaten your future citizenship status.

“This is a free service offered to the community and not tied to any government funding at all,” Johnson says.

Peterson says Regina Food Bank doesn’t report to the government either. The data they do collect — numbers around how many people they are feeding and the demographics most affected — are shared with Food Banks Canada.

How often can I visit a food bank?

Short answer: It depends.

Food banks vary in terms of size and resources. How frequently you can visit and how much food you might receive could differ from program to program. 

Some food banks may allow you to pick up a full hamper of food every two weeks; at others, it might be monthly. But these schedules are flexible. If a food bank receives a boost from food drives or donations, it could be equipped to handle a period of more frequent visits. 

Peterson says she has heard from some clients that they encountered rules around receiving ongoing assistance at other food banks but that these rules aren’t typical. If food insecurity persists for longer than you expect, you should still be able to receive assistance from a food bank.

Should I call ahead?

Short answer: Absolutely.

Calling your local food bank before your first visit is highly encouraged. It gives the staff a chance to prepare for your visit and helps ensure you’ll get the food you need.

Calling ahead also allows you to:

  • Tell the food bank about any dietary restrictions or allergies you might have.
  • Ask about delivery options and whether a friend or family member can pick food up for you.
  • Find out the food bank’s hours of operation.
  • Learn if the food bank offers any other services or can direct you to organizations that provide further support. 
  • Ask about registration requirements.

Using a food bank may not be something you anticipated, but who expected inflation to drive up the cost of living so quickly? This is exactly what food banks are intended for — helping households through unexpectedly tough times. Don’t hesitate to make use of one if necessary. 

To locate the food bank nearest you, visit Food Banks Canada


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