What Do the 2015 Food Access Indicators Tell Us?

The root cause of food insecurity is poverty. This means that if poverty indicators rise, food access concerns become more acute. According to the Thunder Bay Poverty Strategy (2014), specific groups in our community experience poverty at a greater rate than others. These groups include: new Canadians, lone-parent families, youth, Aboriginal peoples, seniors, women, racialized peoples and individuals with mental health issues and disabilities. 40 It is no coincidence that these groups also experience the highest rates of food insecurity.

Access to transportation is connected to both poverty and healthy eating. In 2014 and 2015, the Food Strategy held focus groups and distributed surveys targeting people living on a low income. Findings from both the focus groups and surveys showed that lack of transportation is the next largest barrier to buying food after the cost of food. For instance, many people living on a low income rely on discount grocery or department stores for affordable food, yet discount stores are rarely within walking distance of neighbourhoods, and are sometimes far from bus stops. Although bus fares are on par to those of other Canadian cities, it is still a challenge for people with limited income to afford. People with small children or mobility issues also find it difficult or impossible to make trips to and from the grocery store using public transit.

People with insecure housing are also unlikely to be food secure. Nutritious, affordable meals require a safe place to store and prepare at least small amounts of food. Without a fridge or cooking facilities, individuals are unlikely to be able to make use of food security programs such as Good Food Box, Gleaning, or community gardens. Many people in Thunder Bay live in rooming houses, motels or temporary accommodations where there are no, or very limited cooking facilities, and therefore rely on emergency food providers to survive. Community kitchens address this situation to some extent by making kitchen space available sometimes, but the real solution requires an increase in affordable and subsidized housing.

According to the Poverty Strategy, “some of the most significant systemic barriers that influence poverty are the rates of Ontario Works (OW), Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), and minimum wage.” 41 Ontario Works is a social assistance program designed to assist individuals who are unable to find work, while ODSP is designed to assist individuals with disabilities. Drastic (21.6%) cuts to social assistance rates in Ontario in 1995 left the income of OW and ODSP recipients 40% below the low income cut off. Social assistance rates have not increased appreciably since that time. In 2014, that gap remained almost the same (35-39% for a lone parent with one child, and even higher for single people) resulting in chronic food insecurity, health concerns and inadequate housing among low income people. 42

Each year the Thunder Bay District Health Unit conducts the Nutritious Food Basket survey. The survey consists of visiting 5 grocery stores in the city and 1 store in the district to price 67 food items to determine the lowest available price for healthy food at each grocery store. Over the last 10 years in the District of Thunder Bay the results consistently show that people with a low income do not have adequate funds to purchase a nutritious diet after paying for other essentials, such as rent or transportation. Consider the following: in 2015, the total monthly income for an individual on social assistance was only $752. After paying the market rate of $605 rent for a bachelor apartment, only $147 would remain each month for food and other essentials, such as transportation, clothing, heat and hydro. The cost of a nutritious food basket per month is $294 for an average individual. 43 In other words, for people living on social assistance, it is nothing short of impossible to afford a healthy diet.

Many studies show that we pay a high price for the levels of poverty and food insecurity that we tolerate. For example, people who have trouble getting food on the table also have been shown to use health care services—such as doctor and emergency room visits—more often. On average, a moderately food insecure household has health care costs that are 32% higher than more food secure households. 44 The costs become higher as food insecurity worsens: severely food insecure households cost the health care system an extra $1,092 a year on average. 45 It would be more cost effective and just to prevent these conditions, and the social exclusion that may accompany them, by ensuring that people are economically and logistically able to purchase adequate and nutritious foods.

Most agree that an increase in the use of food banks and emergency feeding programs show that hunger and food insecurity have become chronic, as people come to rely on charitable donations to stretch their monthly food budget. The cost of food obviously has a direct effect on those with limited incomes. Not only does this mean that people become more reliant on food banks and feeding programs, but it also means that people are less able to afford healthy food for themselves and their families.