As students sharpen their pencils for another school year, more families are relying on food banks to fill not only their children's lunch boxes, but their backpacks as well.
Low-income families struggling to pay for rent and food are finding it difficult to manage the extra expense of the new school supplies that every returning student craves, says Katharine Schmidt, executive director at Food Banks Canada.
"Even $10 or $15 (in savings) can make a significant difference to those who are struggling with limited incomes."
About half of the 700,000 families who use food banks have school-age children, Schmidt says.
In the York region north of Toronto, food banks are quickly running out of school supplies. They had planned to hand over 530 school bags this year, but with two weeks left to go before classes begin, they have already given out 519.
"The use of food banks has gone up and now the demand for backpacks is growing," says York Region Food Network executive director Joan Stonehocker.
The region has almost one million residents, and 13 per cent of them fall below the poverty line, but food banks didn't expect the high demand for school supplies this year.
"I don't know what we are going to do in the next weeks," says Stonehocker.
In Montreal, NDG Food Bank executive director Fiona Keats has been seeing more newcomers from Latin America looking for help.
"We are seeing more families having to choose between buying food and getting school supplies," she says. "It's such a high cost to set your kids up for school."
School supplies can cost up to $100 per student, she says. That's on top of other fees that schools charge at the start of the year.
Parents on welfare can ask provincial governments for extra money when their children go back to school. In Alberta, for example, low-income parents can claim between $50 and $175 per child, depending on their grade, says Janice Schroeder, with Alberta Employment.
The Salvation Army is carrying out a campaign across the country to collect hundreds of backpacks full of supplies before the end of this month. The charity is asking for donations of non-toxic markers, notebooks, geometry sets, dictionaries, pencils, erasers, pencil cases, highlighters and glue sticks.
"A lot of families with school children are new clients," says Pam Goodyear, spokeswoman with the Salvation Army in Calgary. "The increase of clients, depending on the province, goes between five to 30 per cent."
Volunteers at the food bank in Oromocto, N.B., are trying to collect sets of Crayola pencils because many teachers ask that their students use that brand specifically.
"Kids should be allowed to bring to school what their parents can afford, without being penalized or looking down," says food bank co-ordinator Bernice MacKinnon.
Toronto elementary school teacher Emilia Merlo says low-quality pencils tend to break more easily and that's why teachers recommend a specific brand.
Pressure to have the best products also comes from classmates.
"We see students competing a lot between them to follow the last trend," Merlo says. Susan Brown, the mother of an eight-year-old girl in Vancouver, says schools create problems when they stop buying bulk materials and ask students to bring their own.
"I've seen children get really stressed."
Parents can save money by purchasing school supplies throughout the year as needed, rather than buying everything up front and ending up with a lot of supplies their children don't need, says Helen Ward, president of the parents association Kids First.
The group has been asking the federal government to regulate advertising targeting children.
"When back-to-school flyers come to your door, throw them out," Ward says. "I would encourage parents to basically ignore what the school is asking them to buy."
Ward says kids are getting more pressure from corporations and from their own peers to have new outfits and expensive electronic equipment, such as computers and iPods.
"Try to inculcate in your children family values and keep them away from corporate values."