BY Mary Ellen Prange, RD, City of Hamilton Public Health Services.
Every year, City of Hamilton Public Health Services monitors what it costs to buy basic nutritious food. The cost of 67 food items in a sample of grocery stores across Hamilton is surveyed. These 67 items make up the Nutritious Food Basket (NFB) which can be used to prepare a week’s worth of healthy meals and snacks that fit the recommendations of Canada’s Food Guide. The NFB survey is a requirement of the Ontario Public Health Standards.
Public Health Services compares the cost of the NFB and the cost of average market rental housing to incomes for various family situations. Year after year, the calculations clearly show that families and individuals who earn minimum wage or receive social assistance do not have enough money for the basic costs of living. When there isn’t enough money to cover fixed living expenses such as rent, heat, hydro and transportation, there is little or no money for more flexible expenses such as food. This can lead to a situation known as “food insecurity.”
Food insecurity is defined as “inadequate or insecure access to food because of financial constraints.” It is a significant social and public health problem in Hamilton. In 2011-2012, 11.6% of households in Hamilton – more than one in nine – experienced food insecurity. Food insecurity can be classified as marginal (worrying about running out of food), moderate (compromising the quantity or quality of food consumed) or severe (reduced food intake and disrupted eating patterns due to lack of food). The food insecurity situation was moderate or severe for over 8% of Hamilton households in 2011-2012.
Food insecurity is a problem rooted in household income. While there has been a lot of attention recently to the rising cost of food (in particular fresh vegetables and fruit), food is still reasonably priced in Hamilton compared to what it costs in other parts of Ontario and Canada, and in other countries. Incomes have not kept pace with the costs of basic living, causing too many to struggle with making ends meet.
The table below shows real-life situations for Hamilton households in 2015.
All of the households except the family of four with median Ontario income illustrate individuals and families living on low incomes. The proportion of income needed for food and housing leaves insufficient money for other basic living expenses including transportation, telephone, clothing, laundry, personal care, household items and school-related expenses. These households are highly vulnerable to food insecurity.
Families and individuals who experience food insecurity are more likely have poorer health compared to those who are not food insecure. Not having access to nutritious food makes it difficult to manage health problems such as diabetes and high blood pressure and then more medical care is needed. A recent study found that Ontario adults in severely food-insecure households used 2.5 times the healthcare dollars compared to those who are food-secure.
Over the past 25 to 30 years, there have been various food responses to food insecurity – food banks, good food boxes, community gardens and collective kitchens – but these have not reduced the problem in any significant way. Income responses are needed to fix food insecurity because it is a problem strongly associated with low household incomes. To effectively reduce the problem of food insecurity in Hamilton and throughout Canada, we need action from the provincial and federal government to enact policies that will increase access to affordable housing and childcare, increase social assistance rates to reflect the actual cost of basic needs, and/or implement a basic income guarantee.
For more information on the cost of healthy food in Hamilton in 2015, visit the City of Hamilton website at: http://www.hamilton.ca/public-health/health-topics/how-much-does-healthy-eating-cost.
Mary is a Registered Dietitian with the City of Hamilton Public Health Services working on creating a healthy food system for all Hamiltonians.
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