The Ottawa Food Bank is reporting record-high use in March as rising inflation continues to make groceries more expensive.

The food bank saw the highest service figures in its 38-year history, with a 39 per cent increase in local food bank demand from 2017. March figures also indicate a 20 per cent increase in service compared to the same period last year, the agency said in a news release.

Ottawa Food Bank CEO Rachael Wilson told CTV News at Noon these are unprecedented figures.

“Before the pandemic, we were serving around 39,000 people every single month. We’re now close to 52,000 people every single month turning to a food bank in Ottawa,” she said.

The Ottawa Food Bank says food banking was initially designed to offer temporary, emergency support in exceptional times of need, but now, the cost of living is driving up grocery bills, which means more people are turning to help from the food bank.

“About 60 per cent of clients are on social assistance and those rates have not kept pace with the cost of inflation. It is near impossible for those people and families to afford the food they desperately need,” Wilson said.

She added that food is often the first thing people cut back on when times are lean.

“You can’t go missing your rent; you can’t miss your heating bills, so the first thing to go is typically food. You can buy cheap food, but we really want people to have access to healthy, nutritious food.”

The food bank is calling for sustainable funding from government to help ensure they can provide meals to anyone in need.

“Our sector is one of the only ones that doesn’t receive any sort of sustainable funding from either the provincial or federal government,” Wilson said. “This election is so important for us right now to be voting in candidates who are committed to reducing food insecurity here in Ottawa.”

The Ottawa Food Bank works with 108 member agencies that help deliver food to people in need. Wilson says those smaller food banks and support groups struggle daily to keep food on their shelves and she says the need for donations is high.

“We are in need of people making donations online, donating in-kind in grocery stores, and more importantly making sure that people vote this election to make sure we’re ending legislated poverty here in Ottawa and across the province.”

Lisa Fabian, executive director of Care Centre Ottawa, a drive-thru and walk-up food bank on Viewmount Drive, says that at the onset of the pandemic, they saw about 220 families per month. Last March, they served more than 1,050 families.

“Every single day we see new families, multiple new families coming; multiple people who never thought they would ever food bank,” Fabian said.

“(For the) majority of our guests, I would say it’s the cost of housing that has a huge impact and then also the rise in inflation. The cost at the pumps, the cost at the grocery store, the cost everywhere is going up at a rate that’s higher than going up with income.”

Donations can be made online or at most grocery stores. Wilson says the Ottawa Food Bank’s bulk purchasing power allows it to turn $1 in donations from the public into $5 worth of food, especially fresh food like produce, meat and dairy, which can’t be donated.