Unaffordable Healthy food out of reach for many in Haldimand according to Health Unit

HALDIMAND—We’ve all felt it lately, that white-knuckled anxiety as we watch the tally shoot up while scanning items at the grocery store. The truth is one every Canadian knows instinctively; food has become unsustainably expensive for many in our communities.  

Haldimand Norfolk Health Unit (HNHU) has reported that in 2023, a single person receiving Ontario Works would need to spend 47% of their overall budget to follow Canada’s food guide, a rate the HNHU report calls unaffordable in light of other life expenses.

The statistic is just one compiled by the HNHU in their yearly food affordability study. The study looks at the price of 61 different items in nine grocery stores across Haldimand and Norfolk. That study shows the overall cost to feed a family of four a healthy diet in the region last year was $259.22 a week, or $1,122.43 a month, a 5% increase over 2022.

According to the United Way of Haldimand and Norfolk, the most recent living wage for a Haldimand resident in 2023 was $20.35 an hour. 

United Way HN Director George Araujo said that with skyrocketing inflation, local food budgets are being stretched to their limit, even for those earning a living wage.

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“A person or family trying to eat healthy is in a dilemma, as good quality food is expensive, and doesn’t include surge pricing that we are also seeing in some grocery stores. Food inflation was up already up by 3.9% in January 2024 so anyone trying to calculate a budget is always behind the numbers. Families are forced to cut quality or quantity, and neither is an optimum choice,” he said.

Food insecurity is connected to a number of public health concerns, including chronic diseases, mood and anxiety disorders, infectious disease, oral health issues, and premature death, while increasing the risk of asthma and mental health disorders in children.

Even with the higher cost of food, the HNHU reports that locally, families are spending less than before on groceries. 

“It suggests that to make ends meet, people are starting to compromise on either the amount or quality of food they are buying, which could lead to negative health outcomes in the long-term,” according to Laura Goyette, a Public Health Dietitian with HNHU.

She shared some tips for stretching your dollar at the store:

  • Compare prices between grocery stores.
  • Have some flexibility in your weekly meal plan/grocery list. If certain items are unexpectedly affordable or very expensive, make the switch.
  • Use coupons.
  • If you’re going to eat an item right away, choose the items that are reduced to sell quickly.
  • Choose frozen or canned items, like fruits, vegetables or meat. Choose low sodium options if possible.  
  • Buy in bulk, if possible.
  • Try plant-based proteins and/or try meatless Monday! Often beans or tofu can be a more affordable option than meat.

Even utilizing these tips however, Goyette noted, “The reality for one in six households in our region is that there simply is not enough money to pay for both rent and healthy food, and understandably housing is often prioritized.” 

She also noted that the idea of price-checking at different stores might not be a possibility for some, due to mobility limitations, or that storing bulk items might note be possible for those with limited freezer/storage space.

Goyette shared another useful tip for those struggling with food insecurity, “One of the few things they have within their control and is timely for this time of year is to file your taxes. Our analysis shows that for a single person receiving Ontario Works, filing your taxes results in an additional $135 per month in benefits and credits. This amount increases for low-income families with children due to the Canada Child Benefit.”

She directed people to find a free tax clinic through their local library, or at the Salvation Army in Dunnville. 

Araujo championed local organizations that provide free monthly or weekly meals, like the Community Support Centre Haldimand-Norfolk in Caledonia, or Cayuga’s Community Café. 

He said that while for the intrepid person there are many affordable recipes waiting to be found online, all the tips in the world can’t solve the basic issue of families not generating enough income to healthily feed their families.

“That is what must be addressed by government,” he noted. “They are seeing the inflated costs charged for food, along with the real issue of inadequate wages for part-time and some full-time jobs. In the end, it does not allow for the very basic right of food security.”

Goyette agreed, sharing some strategies that our different levels of government could employ to help address the issue.

Provincial level:

Indexing Ontario Works (OW) payments to inflation.

Establishing a Social Assistance Research Commission to determine evidence-based social assistance rates in communities across the province based on local/regional costs of living, including the cost of food informed by ONFB data collected by public PHUs.  

A minimum wage that more closely aligns with the cost of living in Ontario.

The development of a provincial poverty reduction strategy.

Use a definition of disability for ODSP that includes those with episodic and short term disabilities.

Federal level:

Continue regular measurement, analysis and reporting on the prevalence and severity of food insecurity.

Implement policy interventions that have been shown to effectively reduce food insecurity, such as expansion of the Canada Child Benefit, and implement a basic income guarantee for those aged 18–64 years.

Policies targeting affordable housing.

Follow through with plans announced in the 2023 budget to automate income-tax returns for low-income Canadians.

“This year, a report on food affordability data was presented to the Haldimand Norfolk Advisory Committee and Board of Health which is comprised of elected officials,” said Goyette. “This report resulted in advocating to the provincial government to index OW payments to inflation, and to support the continued monitoring of food affordability at the local level which contributes to the calculation of a local living wage, among other initiatives.” 

She continued, “In the past, the Board of Health has advocated for many initiatives to support improved food insecurity, such as the establishment of a Social Assistance Research Commission and increased Social Assistance rates.”

“Governments need to realize that each has a direct responsibility to address food costs and wages,” added Araujo, listing preventing price gouging and unreasonable profits throughout the food industry, as well as substantially improved tax credits to help struggling families as federal responsibilities, while the provincial government needs to review the current minimum wage with a lens that “looks to what greater benefits and opportunities can be made available to those in need, on assistance, and in lower income brackets.”

Goyette shared one more resource, noting that those interested can find a low cost and emergency food programming directory on their website.

“They are titled Food in Haldimand and Food in Norfolk, and they can be found on our website at hnhu.org, at our health unit locations and in many community buildings as well (e.g. libraries, organizations that provide emergency food),” she said.

For more information about HNHU’s food affordability study, visit hnhu.org/food-insecurity.