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Getting more expensive to eat

Report finds food costs in Durham Region have gone up 12 per cent since 2011

By Graeme McNaughton/The Oshawa Express

The price of food, like just about everything else, has gone up compared to years past. This increase, however, is more of a burden for some than others.

According to the region’s recently released report on food costs, The Price of Eating Well in Durham Region 2016, the cost for a basic healthy diet for a standard family of four comes to $193 per week, or $837 every month, marking a 12-per-cent bump over the prices seen five years ago.

These rising food costs are especially hard for those in the region that are food insecure. According to the region’s reports, that amounts to 10 per cent of Durham’s households, or approximately 50,000 people.

“What that means is they are either worried about running out of food, settling for lower quality food, or skipping and missing meals all together. It’s quite serious, what happens,” says Deborah Lay, a public health nutritionist with the Region of Durham, adding that such living situations can lead to additional problems aside from poor food choices.

“Food insecurity actually poses serious health issues such as measurably higher rates of diabetes, depression, high blood pressure and a higher use of the healthcare system in general. And those increase with the increased severity of the food insecurity.”

According to a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, those determined to be severely food insecure incurred an average of $3,930 in healthcare costs over a 12-month period. This is well above the average of $1,608 for those determined to be food secure.

Lay says that those living on financial assistance programs, such as Ontario Works or disability, are spending a vast majority of what they receive on rent and food – leaving little left for other necessities needed to survive.

“For a family of four on Ontario Works, this is in Durham Region, they can expect to pay 91 per cent on rent and food alone. Ninety-one per cent of their household income. That leaves only about $360 in that month for all other monthly expenses,” she says, citing the region’s food price report which says only eight per cent of income would be left over.

“Just think about how much your gas costs, and your utility costs. Even things like in September where the kids are going back to school or in the winter if you need new boots for yourself or your children. Very real expenses become very stressful, and you can see how mental illness can come into play. You can also see when people internalize it how it can raise blood pressure.”

According to the report, that same family of four, but instead living on the average Ontario wage, spends only 27 per cent of income on food and rent, leaving 73 per cent on other expenses.

A big solution to a big problem

Lay says that food insecurity is part of a larger problem – overall income inequality in Canada. And to help solve this, she says, a concentrated effort is needed by both the federal and provincial governments.

“The region has taken quite a progressive stand and has recognized these issues, recognized that it’s something that we’re experiencing regionally, but is something that we cannot resolve regionally. It has to be a provincial resolve and a federal resolve,” she says, adding that the recently announced study into a basic income program could help solve that.

“If we had a basic income, we could probably stave off the impact of poverty, the health impacts and the cost to all of our residents. There’s a huge cost to that in our healthcare system.”

Under a basic income system, all residents, regardless of income, would receive a set amount of money on a regular basis from the government, no questions asked. The provincial government is currently undertaking a consultation process on a pilot basic income program, with the hope of determining for whom such a program would be for and where it would take place. According to proponents of the basic income system, the extra money spent on it would be made back through savings to the healthcare system, increased tax revenue and less money spent on other assistant programs.

Outside of that, Lay says that social assistance programs need to be looked at, saying they are “desperately in need of review.”

“It requires review so that they can reflect the actual cost of shelter and food. Right now in Durham Region, as of Oct. 31, there are almost 6,000 people waiting for rent-geared-to-income housing. That’s just in Durham Region. Greater access to affordable housing is something else that is very much needed,” she says.

“Poverty is the root cause and it determines so many social determents of health and having enough food to eat for a basic healthy diet is one of the things it affects.”