Low Income, High Cost: Poverty and the Affordability of Food

Mariel's picture

A few weeks ago, the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada (HSFC) released a study that compared food prices by region across the country. In the HSFC’s 2009 Report on Canadians’ Health, the cost of a basket of healthy food – which included whole grains, lean meat, fruits and vegetables – was compared in 66 different communities in Canada in order to assess price differences.

The results were troubling. Prices for basic staples were found to vary dramatically across the country, with some items being as much as six times more expensive in one community compared to another. While a kilogram of lean ground beef costs $4.99 in Peterborough, Ontario, it costs a whopping $13.21 in Ottawa. A bag of six apples will cost $1.00 for someone living in Toronto, but would cost them $5.02 if they were living in Calgary.

In addition to the inequalities in these prices, the high cost of food in many regions is having a disturbing impact on the nutritional intake of many people. A national poll conducted by the HSFC as part of the survey found that almost half (47%) of Canadians occasionally go without fresh fruit, vegetables, dairy products, whole grain products, lean meat or fish because they are too expensive.

And one in five Canadians that were surveyed said that they did not buy a particular type of food “almost every time” they went shopping because of the cost. Evidently, the cost of food presents a significant barrier for many people to eat well.

This is overwhelmingly true for those living in poverty. For both people on social assistance and for the working poor, the lack of a livable income limits their ability to meet basic nutritional needs. It is also a primary reason for the persistent presence of hunger in Canada. Each month, 704,000 Canadians use a food bank. A shocking 37% of these are children.

Poverty has long been identified as a cause of poor health. Individuals living in poverty are more likely to develop cardiovascular disease, Type II diabetes and obesity. They also generally have a lower life expectancy than people with higher incomes.

A poor diet is a significant factor of this. Processed foods high in refined carbohydrates and sugar are relatively cheap compared to healthier food items. As well, the HSFC survey found that prices for these items are much more consistent across the country. In the long term, a poor diet can significantly increase the risk of many of the diseases that low-income Canadians disproportionately suffer from.

The HSFC’s survey found that marginalized groups are also more likely to be affected by high food prices. First Nations and Inuit communities were found to have some of the highest food prices in Canada, often due in part to their remote locations. These groups also experience higher rates of poverty and ill health than the general population.

It is common knowledge that individual lifestyle choices, including making healthy food choices, are important factors in ensuring good health. Our governments encourage this by educating the public on how to eat well through resources and programs such as Canada’s Food Guide. However, public education about nutrition does little for individuals who cannot access or afford healthy food.

Government policies that could regulate the price of healthy food items and guarantee a livable income would go a long way towards ensuring that every Canadian could afford to eat well.

The HSFC’s poll found Canadians would overwhelmingly support these policies. 84% of people they surveyed believed that Canadian governments should raise the income of poor Canadians so they can afford to eat well, and 86% believed that the government should regulate food to make it equally affordable across the country.

Poverty groups are working to make food more affordable for low-income people. Ontario’s 25 in 5 Network for Poverty Reduction is currently advocating that the provincial government provide a $100-per-month healthy food supplement to adults on social assistance. Policies such as this would help enable thousands of people to eat healthier meals each week.

The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for [their] health and well-being…including food." In a country blessed with the abundance of resources like Canada, it is an absolute disgrace that any person should not have access to healthy, affordable and nutritious food. 

Mariel Angus is CPJ’s former policy intern.

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