Putting healthy food within reach
TheStar.com – Opinion – Putting healthy food within reach
February 18, 2009. Carol Goar
The average weekly food bill in Canada is $140.
That works out to 10.4 per cent of household spending, a far smaller share than taxes (21 per cent), housing (20 per cent) or transportation (13.4 per cent).
For most families, food is abundant and affordable.
For welfare families, it is not.
If a mother with two children on social assistance spent $140 a week on food, she’d have used up 58 per cent of her income. There wouldn’t be enough left to pay the rent, keep the lights on or buy clothes and school supplies for her kids.
If she spent 10.4 per cent of her income on food, as other parents do, her weekly grocery budget would be $25.14. She’d have to buy a lot bread, pasta, rice and other cheap starches and get whatever she could at the local food bank.
That explains why so many social recipients are chronically sick, why so many low-income kids go to school hungry and why food banks can’t keep up with the need for basic staples.
It also explains why a coalition of 350 anti-poverty organizations, known as the 25 in 5 Network, is asking Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty to include a $100 monthly Healthy Food Supplement in monthly welfare cheques.
The extra $25 a week wouldn’t enable people who depend on social assistance to follow the Canada Food Guide, which calls for five daily servings of fruits and vegetables, three daily servings of milk or cheese and two daily servings of meat or high-protein substitutes.
But it might mean an apple or a banana a day. It might mean a glass of milk at dinner. It might mean chicken instead of macaroni on Sundays.
The food allowance is part of a $2.4 billion-a-year package of reforms proposed by anti-poverty activists in anticipation of next month’s provincial budget. They’re also calling for a boost in the $50 Ontario Child Benefit, an additional 7,500 affordable child-care spaces, more social housing and financial assistance for low-income tenants.
But nothing is more basic than food. Nothing is more debilitating than hunger.
It would cost approximately $470 million a year to provide the food supplement recommended by the 25 in 5 Network. But it would improve the health of Ontario’s 725,000 poorest and sickest citizens. It would improve the test scores of thousands of malnourished kids. And it would make life on the margins more livable.
Canada pledged at the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome to halve the number of people without access to sufficient, nutritious food by 2015. It drew up an “action plan for food security” that affirmed every Canadian’s right to meet his or her dietary needs for a healthy, active life.
Since then, hunger has grown steadily. Last year, 704,000 Canadians a month used food banks. Thirty-seven per cent were children. With jobs disappearing and savings melting, this year’s hunger count is likely to be significantly higher.
The problem is not one of supply. The grocery stores are full of food from every part of the world. There are restaurants galore – more than 5,000 in Toronto alone. Nor is there a lack of demand. Everybody has to eat, regardless of income.
Hunger is the starkest manifestation of the gap between rich and poor. Those who fill their grocery carts with healthy food are barely aware of those who head for the day-old bread, the cheapest pasta and biggest bag of potato chips.
A $100 monthly food supplement won’t bridge the chasm. But it could mean a child gets orange juice in the morning and meat sauce on the spaghetti at night.