At this time of year, it is good to see so many efforts making sure that people are cared for in our community. The food banks are in full swing with food drives and Christmas hampers. We see efforts like the Fernwood NRG to “Give the Gift of Good Food” by sponsoring good food boxes not only for the holidays, but year-round. While these efforts are both generous and important, I want to shine the light on the roots of food insecurity. I often hear that people struggle due to the rising cost of food. It is undeniable that food costs, especially fresh fruits and vegetables are rising. The recent fires and droughts in California where we get much of our food, is adding to this winter fresh foods cost dynamic.
However, the research tells us something different about food insecurity (or the inability to access enough nutritious food). Unless you are living in the north of Canada, it is rarely about not having access to food, or the price of food itself. Food insecurity is more related to income. In our region, low income coupled by the high cost of housing greatly influence food security. A recent report (PROOF Report, Food Insecurity Policy Research, University of Toronto) lets us know that the single most impactful thing supporting food security in seniors is reaching the age of 65 when they become eligible for senior’s pension programs. At this time, with a stable income, people are able to access healthier diets.
According to the Food Costing in BC 2017 report, prepared for the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC), the average monthly cost of a healthy diet for a family of four in B.C. increased to $1,019. This report is based on “food costing data” that is collected every two years using Health Canada’s National Nutritious Food Basket (NNFB), a standard tool used by various levels of government to monitor the cost and affordability of healthy eating. The NNFB includes approximately 60 food items that represent a nutritious diet for individuals in various age and gender groups.
Based on the NNFB standard, in British Columbia, half a million people can’t afford a healthy diet. The cost for food for people on social assistance is 44 per cent of their income, almost a quarter for minimum wage earners, and about 14 per cent for people earning a median wage. The results of this are that one in ten experience food insecurity, having inadequate access to food due to financial constraints. On Vancouver Island we would need to spend even more for a healthy diet, at $1043. Here, one in six children live in homes that struggle to feed their families well. There are significant health costs associated with food insecurity. Adults for instance face more vulnerability to depression, heart disease and other chronic diseases like diabetes. This also costs society more as food insecure households incur double the health care costs.
The primary response to food insecurity in BC has been at the local level through initiatives like food banks, meal programs and community gardens. While these initiatives are critical in addressing emergency food needs, increasing food literacy, social cohesion and sustainable food systems, recent research has found that they cannot fundamentally deal with the root cause of the issue, which is poverty. We need to go further to truly reduce household food insecurity. Initiatives and policy that improve income will be more. Some of the strategies that you may have heard about are related to ensuring a “living wage” or guaranteed annual income. There has also been a lot of attention to the housing market here in the Capital Region. Utilizing policy tools and incentives to encourage the development of both private and public sector affordable housing will also have an impact on household food security.
As the holiday season approaches, it is important to give. There are many people in our region that are working hard to put a good meal on the table for their families and there is much we can do to support each other. Over the longer term if we truly want to make a difference, we need to dig more deeply into inequity. We can find solutions that encourage a living wage and affordable housing. Let that be our New Year Resolution; promoting healthier and wealthier communities inclusive of everyone.
Linda Geggie is the executive director with the Capital Region Food and Agriculture Initiatives Roundtable and can be reached at email@example.com.