Families’ buying power eroding: 47 per cent of income needed to eat well: report

Randy Shore, Vancouver Sun

A family of four on income assistance in B.C. would have to spend 47 per cent of its income to buy the minimum amount of food needed to remain healthy, according to a new report by the Dietitians of Canada B.C. region.

Cost of Eating in British Columbia 2011, being released today at 10 a.m., puts the monthly cost of a basic food basket for a typical family, without any takeout meals or prepackaged foods, at an aver-age of $868.43 across B.C.

A family earning the provincial median income of $67,200 would spend only 15 per cent of its earnings on the nutritious food basket.

But for low-income families in the Vancouver Coastal Health region – which includes Vancouver, Burnaby, Richmond and the south central coast – the news is worse.

The food basket originally developed by Health Canada in 1974 costs $944.16, or more than double the living allowance of a family on social assistance.

Across B.C., families with a single wage earner near minimum wage don’t fare much better, according to the report.

Even when benefits such as the national child benefit, B.C. family bonus, the B.C. Low Income Climate Action Benefit, the quarterly HST credit and $312 in monthly rental assistance are included in their income, the low-wage family still spends more than one-third of its total income on food.

“Even with the increased minimum wage [which rises to $10.25 an hour in May] folks still cannot afford to eat healthily,” said Kristen Yarker, regional executive director of the Dietitians of Canada BC Region.

“People are forced to make hard decisions and purchase food that is not as healthful but that will keep you full longer,” said Yarker. “When money is tight, do you buy the local car-rots that will feed your kids for an afternoon or the case of ramen that will feed them for a week?”

Parents may eat less or skip meals to keep their children fed, and then when the money really gets short, children start showing up at school hungry.

“That’s why we have school breakfast programs in many schools and why teachers buy food out of their own pockets for kids who haven’t got enough,” Yarker said.

The cost of the food basket has increased by 38 per cent over the past decade, while the living allowance paid to families on social assistance has not increased in that period, said Yarker.

“I know from my work with low-income people that they want to buy local foods and make those healthy choices but they sometimes just can’t afford them.”…

Public health officials, dietitians and volunteers compiled food costs for the report from 133 grocery stores across each of the province’s five health regions.

“These are foods that meet the basic nutritional needs according to Canada’s Food Guide,” Yarker said. “Everything requires preparation, so there is nothing pre-made, just basic staples and no eating out at all, it’s pretty basic.”

Yarker concedes that it is difficult to make healthy foods cheaper without penalizing farmers. The report recommends an overhaul of local food systems and a provincial poverty reduction strategy that would address the cost of shelter and improve wages and income assistance rates.

According to Food Banks Canada’s report Hunger Count 2011, more than 90,000 people in B.C. were served by the province’s 91 food banks last year.


B.C. families on social assistance have to choose between shelter and buying an adequate supply of nutritious foods as recommended by Canada’s Food Guide

Read the report online