One in nine households lives in food insecurity: Public health report

One in nine households lives in food insecurity: Public health report

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Approximately one in nine households in the Kingston region is living with food insecurity, according to Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox and Addington Public Health’s 2022 Cost of Eating Healthy Report.

The report, released Wednesday, says that it costs an average of $1,099 to purchase healthy food per month for a family of four in the Kingston region.

“The purpose of this report is to communicate to the public, to our community partners and to our municipal partners the cost of eating healthy in relation to other costs of living,” Tracy McDonough, a public health dietitian with local public health, told the Whig-Standard on Wednesday afternoon.

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Public health units in Ontario are required to monitor food affordability. In May 2022, public health surveyed seven local grocery stores online and in-store, recording the lowest available prices for 61 foods that reflect “a healthy eating pattern from Canada’s food guide” and averaging those costs.

Five per cent was added to the total food cost to account for additional food items such as spices, seasonings, condiments, baking supplies, soups, coffee and tea.

Processed, snacks, special dietary, infant, religious or cultural foods, or toiletries or personal care items were not included in the cost analysis.

“What we aim to do with this report is highlight the cost of eating healthy locally in various income scenarios based on different household structures that we might see in the community,” McDonough said.

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The report examines a number of ways in which food insecurity is visible in KFL&A region, including the average amount of money remaining after paying rent for a variety of demographics, weighing that remaining money against the estimated cost for eating a healthy diet, based on Canada’s 2019 National Nutritious Food Basket.

For a family of four with a median Ontario income, the $1,099 in food expenses per month fit easily into the average $6,956 left over after rent has been paid in Kingston, but less so for a family of four living on full-time minimum wage salaries . That scenario leaves $1,606 left after rent is paid.

For a single female parent of two living on Ontario Works — 12 per cent of households in KFL&A are lone female parent families, the report states — the average cost of eating healthy is $804 per month, which comes out of their average leftover money of $1,126 in Kingston.

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A single individual living on Ontario Works falls $49 short in paying the average cost of rent in Kingston, and someone living on the Ontario Disability Support Program would have $131 left after rent, the report finds. Their monthly cost of $400 to eat healthy is unmanageable.

The money left over after rent has been paid for needs to cover not only food but also regular costs of living, such as heat, electricity, child care, transportation, clothing, phone and internet, medical expenses such as dental and eye care, personal hygiene and prescription medications.

“It is quite astonishing to see that many households would be in debt if they were to pay rent and then pay for the cost of eating healthy for one month,” McDonough said. “We clearly know that these families would not be able to pay for the cost of eating healthy at all, because there would be other household expenses beyond just rent. That was quite the eye-opener this year.”

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Public health did not collect food cost data during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021, while the staff who would usually produce the report were working on tasks related to the pandemic response. The last report was produced in 2019, just before Canada’s Food Guide changed.

“Because of the differences in our method and the food we actually cost, we can’t make a comparison in the cost of eating healthy between 2019 and 2022, unfortunately,” McDonough said.

While that historic data can’t be compared side by side, McDonough agreed that the cost of food is “absolutely going up.”

“It really highlights the need to be doing this costing and making this information available to a community, so that community organizations and even our own organization can be advocating for income-based responses to food insecurity.”

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The report points out that food insecurity has a negative impact on physical and mental health for children and adults.

“Food insecurity is a serious public health problem in Canada, because individuals’ health and well-being is tightly linked to the household’s food security status,” McDonough said. “We know that adults who are food insecure have poorer physical and mental health and are more likely to have chronic conditions, such as depression, diabetes and heart disease. Food insecurity also puts adults at greater risk for developing serious chronic conditions.”

Exposure to severe food insecurity has been linked to an increased risk of developing depression and suicidal ideation in adolescents, McDonough said.

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“Even in food insecure households where the child is not experiencing food deprivation but the adult is, those children still have a higher risk of anxiety disorders and poor mental health than children living in food secure households.”

Income is the strongest predictor of food insecurity among individuals and families in Canada, the report states.

According to data gathered by Feed Ontario from the provincial and federal governments, 587,103 adults and children accessed a food bank in Ontario between April 1, 2021, and March 31, 2022, an increase of 15 per cent over the previous three years.

First-time food bank visitors have increased 64 per cent over pre-pandemic levels, Feed Ontario’s Hunger Report 2022 states.

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Statistics collected by Feed Ontario found that 5,741 individuals in Kingston and the Islands used a food bank in 2021.

According to Canada’s Food Price Report 2023, co-produced by Dalhousie University, the University of British Columbia, the University of Guelph and the University of Saskatchewan, the cost of food increased by 10.3 per cent in 2022.

McDonough said that charitable food programs will not correct the shortfall in making ends meet, and that public health is focused on an “upstream approach,” advocating for changes in government policy to improve income security or the financial circumstances of households at the bottom of the income spectrum, including employment policies, pensions, tax exemptions or credits, or social assistance programs that are aligned with inflation or the cost of living.

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McDonough pointed to public health’s website for resources that local residents can access to advocate for policy changes.

“Unfortunately, food, charity and community food programs cannot solve poverty, which is the root cause of food insecurity,” McDonough said.

“We want to make sure that updated food costs are available for use by municipalities and community partners. And we’re also committed to advocating for income-based policies so that all residents can afford to buy healthy food.”

To view KFL&A Public Health’s Cost of Eating Healthy report, visit www.kflaph.ca/en/healthy-living/Cost-of-Healthy-Eating.aspx.

[email protected]

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