Poverty and a food price crisis

Now that we’ve rung in 2015, we can expect a higher total when our groceries are rung up at the store. According to the Food Institute at the University of Guelph, food prices in 2014 increased by 2.8%. Meat prices increased the most, with a jump of 12.4%. The Food Institute predicts that in 2015 food prices will continue to rise faster than inflation.

Low-income people are most by affected these increases. That’s a very large group including people on employment insurance, Ontario Works, or disability support, as well as underemployed and minimum wage workers, and students and retired people living on fixed incomes.

To learn more I sat down with Tara Kainer, who works on food security issues in the social justice office of the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul.

She explained that food prices are not the biggest factor in food insecurity: “As long as housing costs are so astronomically high, people just don’t have any room in their budget. You have to pay your rent or you’re out on the street. You have to pay your mortgage or you’re going to lose your house. Those things are not very negotiable.”

Whereas people can and do try to save money by spending less on food, which usually means buying less healthy and lower quality food, or simply buying less and skipping meals.

And a lot of people are in that boat; a 2012 multi-university study on food insecurity found that 4 million Canadians including 1.15 million children “lived in households that struggled to afford the food they needed in 2012.”

I asked Kainer if she expected to see changes in demand for food banks and meal programs because of rising food prices, and she told me that an increase in numbers was already apparent at food providers in Kingston.

Senior citizens—who often have fixed incomes—have already increased their use. But students are the fastest growing group of users, along with children. A 2014 report from the Ontario Association of Food Banks (OAFB) found the number of households using food banks had jumped by 20% since 2013. That’s a sign of a widening food insecurity crisis.

Some pundits argue—regardless of perpetually increasing costs for housing and food—that low income people simply need to budget better. Kainer dismisses this idea. “They do not need to learn how to budget. They budget better than any of us do because they have so little money. They make their dollars stretch.”

Ultimately one of the biggest impacts of food insecurity is poor health. People who can’t afford healthy food and a diverse diet are prone to chronic health problems.

To cut back on social assistance, Kainer explains, “is not helping anyone. To have poor, vulnerable, ill-fed people in our society, who will end up with all kinds of difficulties, especially health ones, makes us all weaker as a society and all worse off.”

A report from the Ontario Association of Food Banks found that in 2007 Canada spent $7.6 billion additional health care dollars because of poverty, and the price of food has increased dramatically since then.

So society does end up paying for food insecurity, but it does so especially through the health care system. People develop chronic illnesses which are expensive to treat, instead of having preventative access to healthy food.

It’s a tragic irony; in a supposed attempt to save money, Canadian society spends far moremoney on health care and other services, while causing needless deprivation and suffering for millions of people. And that deprivation, the research is clear, falls disproportionately on people of colour and indigenous people, single-parent families, and children.

As for solutions, Kainer points to that 2012 multi-university study which suggests an increase in the minimum wage, good jobs, higher rates of social assistance, affordable housing, a national day care plan, and a basic income guarantee.

Kainer is optimistic about the growing movement for a guaranteed minimum income. “As usual, politicians have to be pushed to implement these kinds of programs. And poverty isthe result of social policy.”

Aric McBay is a farmer and author. He lives and works at a mixed family farm with a dairy herd and a vegetable operation.

Aric McBay

Aric McBay is an author, farmer, and organizer.