Healthy food beyond reach for many low-income Londoners: Health unit

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Londoners on welfare seeking nutritious meals would spend nearly half their monthly income doing so, a new health unit report says, as stagnant social assistance rates and skyrocketing grocery costs put basic needs out of reach for the city’s poor.

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A new report by the Middlesex-London Health Unit is quantifying just how financially unattainable healthy food is for low-income residents, particularly single people on social assistance, who would have to spend up to 45 per cent of their monthly income to afford a set basket of nutritious food.

Single men on Ontario Works are faring the worst in London and Middlesex County, the report said. With a monthly income of $863, rent estimated at approximately $860 and the cost of a healthy basket of food ringing in at about $392 a month, the health unit estimates they end the month nearly $400 in the hole.

“It’s the one scenario that’s always the hardest to see,” public heath dietician Kim Loupos said Wednesday.

“They spend an estimated 100 per cent of their income on housing and about half on food, never mind all the other costs people have in their life. . . It’s a horrible situation.”

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A single parent at Ontario Works is spending approximately 31 per cent of their monthly income on food with just $340 a month left after rent and grocery costs for utilities, phone, internet, clothing, personal care items, transportation and other costs.

The food costs in the health unit report aren’t just a random assortment of the cheapest groceries. The nutritious food basked is a curated list of 61 foods that reflect Canada’s food guide recommendations and eating behaviors identified in the Canadian community health survey.

Analysts gathered data about local food prices online and in-store last year. Because the health unit was using a different method for calculating the nutritious food basket cost in 2022 – and since it hadn’t been done since pre-pandemic in 2019 – it’s difficult to make year-to-year comparisons, Loupos said.

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A nutritious food basket for a family of four costs about $1,084 in London and Middlesex County. For a London-area family of four on Ontario Works, the food cost is approximately 39 per cent of its monthly income.

In contrast, London-area families of four with an after-tax monthly income of $9,323, the median in the area, about 12 per cent of its income, has nutritious food costs.

The 2022 food cost totals in London and Middlesex County are similar to the results in Windsor and Essex County.

The nutritious food basket – which includes items such as fresh vegetables and fruit, canned meat and frozen vegetables – is a benchmark many low-income Londoners can’t meet, Loupos said.

“People may spend less, they may spend more. It does require that people have certain time and ability to cook, because a lot of the foods are whole food ingredients that require from-scratch cooking,” she said.

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The health unit report, which is being presented to the board of health Thursday, comes as Statistics Canada released new consumer price index numbers on the cost of groceries.

Food inflation continued to outpace overall inflation in March, Statistics Canada announced Tuesday. Compared to the same time period last year, the price of groceries rose by 9.7 per cent in March. Last month’s totals are down slightly from the 10.6 per cent year-over-year hike Statistics Canada reported in February.

The London Food Bank has seen more than 2,800 families so far this month on the heels of its highest-ever demand for assistance in March, co-executive director Jane Roy said Wednesday.

“There have only been two days we’ve had fewer than 200 families this month,” Roy said.

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About 5,450 families, approximately 14,000 people, needed the London Food Bank in March, the highest monthly total in the organization’s more than three-decade history.

Co-executive director Glen Pearson applauded the unit’s health report and said it is important for the public to see lack of access to nutritious food not just as a dollars-and-cents issue, but as a growing health system and public health concern.

“Somebody on Ontario Works or disability, they’ve hardly had an increase in a decade,” Pearson said.

“Eventually homelessness fell into the category of health. That took years for that to develop in the way that it has. . . . The same thing is happening around nutrition. I think this ongoing trend of people not being able to afford food anymore will have health consequences and will cost the health system.”

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