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Healthy food too costly for the poor: report

Eating healthy foods can cost too much for families living on low incomes or social assistance. - Black Press photo
Eating healthy foods can cost too much for families living on low incomes or social assistance.
— image credit: Black Press photo

By Jeff Nagel

A family on welfare would have to spend as much as 47 per cent of their household income to put healthy food on the table, according to a new report on the cost of nutritious food.

The B.C. chapter of the Dieticians of Canada pegs the cost of providing a family of four with a nationally defined basket of nutritious food – basic staples and produce but no pre-packaged meals – at an average of $868 per month in B.C.

That monthly cost rises to $944 in the Vancouver Coastal health region, while it’s slightly lower at $851 in the Fraser Health region, according to the report Cost of Eating in British Columbia 2011.

It would eat up 15 per cent of the $67,200 median income for a typical B.C. family of four and a much higher proportion for those in or near poverty.

Single people on income assistance and even a family of four on a lower earned income would pay at least a third of their income, the report found.

That doesn’t leave enough to pay the typical cost of housing, it found, estimating many welfare families would face a $100 to $300 gap each month if they tried to buy what’s nutritious.

“People end up using food banks and a lot of free food services,” said Kristen Yarker, executive director of the B.C. dieticians group.

“They end up spending a lot of their time accessing those and lining up, which isn’t a great solution.”

Others go without, she said, or opt for cheaper, less healthy food options.

The report found the nutritious food basket price hasn’t changed since 2009, but is up nearly 40 per cent since 2001, when it stood at $626.

Meanwhile, Yarker noted, housing, gasoline, utilities and other competing costs have steadily climbed, leaving less in household budgets to devote to good food.

“The problem is getting worse,” she said. “Income assistance and disability assistance rates have not kept up.”

Poor nutrition can spell trouble for children in school, harm pregnancies for expectant mothers and hurt productivity of adult workers.

Over the long term, the report said, poor food increases rates of diabetes and heart disease, ultimately shortening lives and costing the health care system more money.

Dieticians, nutritionists and volunteers surveyed prices in grocery stores across B.C. to calculate the food basket cost in each region.

B.C.’s minimum wage rises to $10.25 an hour in May. But the dieticians group is calling for a series of further reforms to help the poor.

It wants B.C. to raise welfare rates, add more affordable housing, enact a living wage policy, pursue a poverty reduction strategy and develop sustainable food systems that can eventually replace food banks.

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