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SMDHU looks at food concerns

By Patrick Bales, The Orillia Packet & Times

Approximately one in nine households under the purview of the Simcoe-Muskoka District Health Unit have food security concerns.

The problem of easily obtaining and affording safe, healthy and familiar food for about 11% of households, combined with only a quarter of those food insecure houses accessing local food banks, has the health unit looking at other options.

"The root of household food insecurity is poverty," said Jane Shrestha, a registered dietitian working on the food security issue for the health unit. "Solutions that have an impact on the incomes of folks who are struggling to put food on the table are likely to be the most effective solutions we have available."

It's one thing to put food on the table; it's another to put the right food on the table and still have money left over to pay for other "luxuries," such as transportation, telephones or over-the-counter medication.

Every year, the health unit calculates the cost of a nutritious food basket. That basket would contain items from the four food groups that could make a week's worth of meals, including fruits and vegetables, breads and cereals and meats and dairy.

It's not a food budgeting tool, Shrestha warns, but rather what providing nutritious food for you and your family could cost on average.

The most recent figures from the health unit have a food basket for a family of four running at more than $850 per month.

"When we look at those averages for the family of four receiving Ontario Works, the results from our nutritious food basket survey indicated 94% of Ontario Works income would be required to cover the nutritious food basket and rent alone," Shrestha said.

A single man on Ontario Works between the age of 31 and 50 actually couldn't afford the food basket. The estimated cost of rent and food combined is about $205 more than the total income that person would bring in.

Even those who say wages or salaries are their primary source of income are not out of the woods. In Ontario, approximately 60% of those who are food insecure have an income from employment.

"It's less about having a job and more about that job or jobs providing sufficient income for individuals and families to be able to meet their basic needs," Shrestha said. "There is such a thing as precarious employment, which covers all kinds of part-time, seasonal work and other work situations that are less than permanent."

That same reference family of four brings in nearly $2,900 each month with minimum wage employment. The cost of rent and the nutritious food basket combines to take up nearly three-quarters of that income, leaving approximately $800 left over.

As much as budgeting is important for all individuals, it doesn't have a tremendous impact on closing the gap between income and expenses for local individuals and families on limited incomes.

What would be more beneficial, the health unit argues, are measures that help bring people out of poverty, from an expanded basic guaranteed income policy to any number of other financial supports.

"The ultimate message is that income from these sources still leaves individuals and families struggling to make ends meet," Shrestha said. "Any type of solution that has a sustainable impact on income - whether it's affordable housing, things that help take care of childcare expenses for struggling families - is a step in the right direction."

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