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Food theft, food bank demand increasing with food inflation

B.C.'s food banks growing into ever-bigger businesses as inflation erodes purchasing power.
Greater Vancouver Food Bank CEO David Long has seen a significant increase in demand for his organization's services

More food theft and greater demand for food banks are two effects of B.C.’s 9.8-per-cent annual food-inflation rate, which has ravaged consumers’ purchasing power.

The new economic reality has forced people to raise grocery budgets regardless of whether they are able to afford it. 

Some shoppers can stretch resources by trimming spending on less-essential goods and services. Another solution is to reduce food waste. Others have reached their breaking points.

Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University, told BIV that food theft is increasing at an accelerating pace.

He divides this theft into three categories:

  • individuals who are desperate, and who steal a few items at a time for personal use;
  • groups of individuals who steal many items from many stores on a regular basis to supply organized crime; and
  • employee theft. 

He said Canadian grocers increasingly put electronic chips under price tags, particularly on higher-priced items, such as meat. 

They are also hiring more plain-clothed loss-prevention officers to wander aisles and look for customers pocketing products, and more people to watch customers via overhead cameras, he said. 

Canadian grocers tend to avoid commenting on the phenomenon, which contrasts with the situation in Europe, where grocers are open about the problem, he said. 

“There was a report in France saying that food theft is on the rise by 30 per cent — so they have concrete data,” Charlebois said. “To get data in Canada is impossible because people just don’t want to talk about it.”

His own research from various sources leads him to believe that the average Canadian grocery store loses $3,000 to $4,000 per week to theft, he said. 

Desperate people averse to stealing items seek out other ways to get the food they need. 

Those who can get social workers, doctors or their children’s teachers to refer them to the Quest Food Exchange will be able to access that organizations services, its executive director, Theo Lamb, told BIV

Quest operates in a space between food banks and traditional grocery stores. Food is sold for lower prices at Quest than at retail stores because Quest is a non-profit organization that does not ding customers at its five stores with the approximately four-per-cent net profit that free-market grocers charge as part of doing business.

“We are also able to sell our products for very, very low prices because we strike partnerships with food distributors, other retail chains, farmers and producers,” Lamb said.  

Quest fundraises to get money to buy products that it is not able to source at discounted prices. 

The organization has about 15,000 clients who may shop as frequently as they want. Its stores tend to see a combined total of about 4,000 customer visits per week, she said.
Food banks are another option for people, and that sector is increasingly a big business.

Going to a food bank means, for many, the need to swallow pride and admit that they are not able to provide for themselves. 

Wide range of food banks available

Those who recognize that they need the social support of food banks will find a dizzying array of options. 

The Greater Vancouver Food Bank (GVFB) is the largest food bank organization in the province, with four food banks: In Burnaby, New Westminster, Vancouver and North Vancouver. 

Other food banks in Vancouver include the Jewish Food Bank, the Muslim Food Bank, the Alma Mater Society of the University of British Columbia Food Bank and many more. 

The BC Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (BC SPCA) has a food bank for pets.

GVFB’s CEO, David Long, explained that the high-level organizations Food Banks Canada and Food Banks BC redistribute government funding and money from large corporations to actual food banks.

Because it is so large GVFB, deals directly with Food Banks Canada, while Food Banks BC distributes money to the myriad of other food banks across the province.

Premier David Eby on March 7 announced that his government would provide $200 million to support the province’s food banks as well as overall agricultural production. 

He said that he intended the money to be used by food banks to improve infrastructure, by adding commercial coolers, for example, and not for operational purposes, because the money is a one-time grant prompted by the government’s $5.7 billion surplus in the 2022-2023 fiscal year. 

Money from that surplus that is not earmarked for a specific purpose by the end of this month by law must go toward paying down debt. 

Nonetheless, Long said he hopes some of the government money that trickles down to his organization will be able to be spent on buying food because the need for food is so great.

The GVFB served about 20,000 distinct individuals or families in the past year, with about 15,000 individuals coming monthly, he said.

Food bank clients need to show government identification and have a conversation with GVFB staff to relay their situation before they are authorized to get food, Long said. 

“I would say, probably 98 per cent of the people who we serve are in need of help and assistance,” he said.

“There are stories out there of us asking, ‘What brings you to a food bank?’ and someone saying, ‘Oh, I’m saving up to buy Christmas presents so I don’t want to spend money on groceries.’ Those cases are very few and far between.”

Anyone saying something like that would be told that this is not the reason that the food bank exists, he added.

In contrast, there are cases where someone may not appear to be in need but really is, he said.

Long remembered one situation a couple years ago where a woman said she had a household income of $150,000 but her husband had a gambling problem and frittered away the money, so she had no money to buy food to feed her two kids.

“We don’t ask for an income qualification because everybody has a different circumstance,” he said. 

Food bank staff determine menus for clients, and then portion out food based on those menus, he said. 

Clients need to show food bank identification cards when they get food so staff can confirm their frequency and that they have not gone to other food banks, he added. 

The GVFB has been running an operational surplus even though its revenue has been falling, and its costs have been increasing. 

In its most recent fiscal year, which ended June 30, it generated $29.3 million in revenue, down 10.9 per cent from the $32.9 million in revenue the previous year.

Operational expenses in the year that ended last summer amounted to $22.56 million, up nearly 9.4 per cent from the year that ended in mid-2021.

Other costs involved fundraising, advertising, administration, leases and other items. 

Overall, its financial report shows that the GVFB had a $2.9 million surplus in the year that ended last summer, compared with a $9.3 million surplus in the year that ended in the middle of 2021.

Surpluses “go back into supporting future demand,” Long said. 

He added that the 2020-2021 fiscal year was particularly good operationally because there was a spike in donations. 

This year, in addition to anticipated funding from the $200 million pot of money that Eby has earmarked for food security, Long has seen an increase in donations. 

“This is fortunate because we’ve seen a massive increase in the number of people using the food bank,” he said.

(This is Part 2 of a two-part feature on food supply that appeared in the March 20 edition of BIV. To read Part 1, on how inflation is making it more important for companies to reduce food waste, click here.)

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