The number of Canadians using food banks skyrocketed by 28 per cent over the past two years and has now hit the highest level on record, according to a new report.

HungerCount 2010, an annual survey of the nation's food banks, suggests the 2008-2009 recession has taken a direct toll on Canadians. And although the economy is recovering, hunger continues to grow.

"In March 2010, 867,948 separate individuals were assisted by a food bank in Canada. This is an increase of 9.2 per cent over March 2009, and follows an 18 per cent jump in usage between 2008 and 2009," the report states.

"Canadian food bank use has now reached its highest level on record."

The report from Food Banks Canada suggests many Canadians lost their jobs during the recession, and now their unemployment benefits are beginning to run out.

In other cases they've found new jobs, but many are in the service industries and don't pay well enough to support their households.

However, Katharine Schmidt, the executive director of Food Banks Canada, said the problem isn't new.

"We haven't seen poverty reduced since the mid-1970s. Ten per cent of the population in Canada is living in poverty, and that's been consistent," Schmidt told CTV's Power Play Tuesday evening. "So it's time for us to find some creative solutions that can really help the long term, and really prevent it, so not just reduce it, but what policies and things can we do as a country to prevent it from continuing to happen to people."

This year, every province in Canada recorded an increase in the number of people who needed help feeding their household.

The increases in Manitoba, of 21 per cent, and Saskatchewan, of 20 per cent, were the highest among the provinces, per capita, though the territories recorded a whopping 59 per cent increase.

And there was a significant rise in the number of people accessing a food bank for the first time.

According to the report, 80,150 people walked through a food bank's doors for the very first time in March 2010.

As March is a typical month for food bank use, the report estimates that close to a million new people will visit a food bank over the course of the year.

And of those helped by food banks in 2010, 38 per cent are children or youth under 18.

Rob Rainer, executive director of Canada Without Poverty, said his agency sees an increasing number of people who are employed but "not able to make ends meet from their labour, so the working poor."

According to Rainer, one key to reducing the numbers of working poor who need food banks and other assistance is labour market reform.

Canada traditionally has a higher percentage of workers employed in low-paying jobs, and more people are working in temporary jobs that have few, if any, benefits, he said.

He also points out that the minimum wage rates across the country "have not kept pace anywhere near with inflation over the past couple of decades.

"Back in the early 80s, if you were working for the minimum wage or a little bit above, you were much more able to meet your basic needs from your labour. Now, not a minimum wage rate in the country comes close to what we call a living wage," Rainer told Power Play. "So we've got to have a conversation about wages and labour market reform and have public sector and private sector employers figuring out how we can strike a balance here…so if someone's working full time, 35 or 40 hours a week, they are able to earn enough from their labour to make ends meet."

Following is a province by province breakdown showing the number increase in people helped in 2010, compared to 2009 (per cent of increase shown in brackets):

  • B.C.: 4,473 (5 per cent)
  • Alberta: 5,335 (9.9 per cent)
  • Saskatchewan: 18,875 (20.1 per cent)
  • Manitoba: 10,041 (21 per cent)
  • Ontario: 27,826 (7.4 per cent)
  • Quebec: 16,900 (12.3 per cent)
  • New Brunswick: 628 (3.5 per cent)
  • Nova Scotia: 2,229 (11 per cent)
  • Prince Edward Island: 362 (13.4 per cent)
  • Newfoundland and Labrador: 786 (2.6 per cent)
  • Territories: 843 (59 per cent)