More than a quarter of Canadians cut back on their consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables last month because of increasing prices. As a dietitian, I know that nutritious food supports good overall health, so it concerns me to know that some families must choose between paying the bills or eating well. This problem is a largely undiagnosed one, and it’s only getting worse.
Every two years, Vancouver Coastal Health contributes to the Provincial Health Services Authority’s (PHSA) ‘Food Costing in BC’ report that tracks the cost of healthy food. Last year, the monthly average for a nutritious food basket for a family of four was $975 – an indicator based on 67 minimally-processed products that are commonly eaten by most Canadians, and in amounts that would provide a balanced diet. In Vancouver, even if families avoid shopping at higher end “health food” grocery stores, that same food basket cost $952 per month, and even higher in North Shore/Coast Garibaldi at $991 per month, and that’s before cauliflower catapulted into the category of luxury vegetable, since this report was compiled just before prices started to skyrocket.
Food insecurity is when a person doesn’t have access to enough safe, nutritious food to stay healthy. Food insecurity can directly damage people’s health, and it can start as early as in the womb and continue throughout one’s entire life. Food insecurity manifests in low birth weight, and children who have poorer academic outcomes and social skills; it can present in the form of chronic disease including diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure, which are more prevalent in food insecure households; it can impact mental and emotional health and wellbeing, with higher rates of depression and even social isolation associated with food insecurity. From a public health standpoint, these are significant risks for long-term disease.
We tend to find higher incidences of food insecurity in households with single mothers, Aboriginal families (on or off reserve), new immigrants and in people who are marginally housed. Nearly 13 per cent of the BC population was food insecure in 2012, and it’s safe to say those numbers are higher today as the price of food seems to be climbing.
The root cause of hunger isn’t a lack of food, rather it’s the inability to access available food, and that may be due to purchasing power, food prices, or a host of other factors.
Social assistance or minimum wage incomes often don’t suffice because they may not allow parents to give their children choices in food. Instead, parents must sometimes buy what they know will get eaten (and satisfy kids’ hunger) and, often times, these are cheaper processed foods that have virtually no nutritional content.
Though they were originally developed as a temporary measure to assist with food insecurity, the use of food banks is growing - 28 per cent between 2008 and 2015. More than one third of users are children.
Community-led initiatives such as community gardens, shopping clubs, school meal programs, cooperative shopping, and farmers’ markets, may help but they won’t resolve the root cause: low-income families simply don’t have enough money to cover their basic needs, and that includes nutritious food.
This affects all of us as taxpayers. An Ontario study found health care costs were between 16 and 76 per cent higher for households where food insecurity ranged from marginal to severe.
To achieve food security, we must work to eliminate the barriers to affordable and healthy food – and as we do that, we’ll be supporting the overall health of our population at the same time.