Single parents hit hard by food insecurity
The year-long series explores why so many in N.L. are struggling to put food on the table
Feeding her three children is something Dara Squires loses sleep over.
"There's definitely probably hours a day that, you know, you're sitting at work and you're like, 'OK, got to get home, feed the kids. What am I going to make for them? Do I have the ingredients I need? If I don't have the ingredients, do I have enough money to go buy them? Do I need to come up with something else?'" she said.
"I spend a lot of hours in the evening kind of trying to come up with ways to make more money … so that we're a little more comfortable. So it's difficult to balance those needs a lot of the time."
Squires, a working single mother of three, is part of the growing number of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians facing food insecurity — the struggle to afford food or have access to food. This province has the highest rate of food insecurity among Canadian provinces.
And, according to data compiled by Proof Canada — a research team that investigates and publishes annual reports on food insecurity using data from Statistics Canada — single parents just like Squires are the most likely to face food insecurity in the province.
'They are not making ends meet'
The issue is one the Single Parent Association of Newfoundland is familiar with.
"The majority is single moms," said Elaine Balsam, the group's executive director.
"Some are working at low wages, and they are not making ends meet. They do not have the food, they run out. So there's severe cases."
Balsam said with some jobs offering only part-time hours, some single parents are working two or three jobs to get food on the table and keep the household afloat.
"When you have to choose between paying the bills and food? Food usually comes near the end," she said.
Sometimes parents make another challenging sacrifice: skipping meals to make sure their children don't go hungry, said Natasha Bader, co-ordinator at the St. John's Women's Centre.
Food insecurity can have a wide-ranging impact on children, too. It can affect their behaviour and their ability to learn in school. Food insecurity can also limit their opportunities for growth and development, engaging with their friends and community.
When you have to choose between paying the bills and food? Food usually comes near the end.- Elaine Balsam, NL Single Parents Association
Summer camp is one example, said Ellie Jones, program director at Thrive, a non-profit organization that provides programs and services for vulnerable people. Since children can't use services like school lunch programs, the demand for food in the summer can be even greater in some cases.
"They might be fortunate enough to go to camp, but they don't have food to send with them to camp, a lunch or a snack," Jones said, which can have a stigma attached to it.
The role the wage gap plays
So, what makes single parents more susceptible to food insecurity? A lack of high-paying employment and a missing second income are among the top reasons, according to Valerie Tarasuk, a professor at the department of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto.
"If we've got two adults, we've got two kicks at the can," Tarasuk said.
The wage gap is another obstacle for single mothers to overcome, said Tarasuk.
"There's lots of studies showing that women in Canada on average make less than men. Employment is more difficult for them," she said.
"If you've got a lone parent, a woman trying to manage that situation, [they are] just less able to have had the opportunities to amass that financial cushion."
And if you think only people who are unemployed or who rely on social assistance are facing food insecurity, think again, said Tarasuk.
"The rise we've seen in Newfoundland and Labrador in terms of food insecurity rates not only suggests that there is increasing vulnerability amongst people on social assistance — but also that more people in the workforce are struggling," she said.
It all adds up
Child-care costs can eat up a significant chunk of a household income, leaving less money for groceries, said Balsam.
"Some people even delay returning to work until their children are in school because basically they're working a low-paying job … to pay child care — and they can't get ahead that way," she said.
It is a cycle that can be hard to get out, said Danielle Douglas, an organizer with Parents for Affordable Childcare in Newfoundland and Labrador, a grassroots organization advocating for quality affordable and accessible child care.
"What's being shared amongst the members in our network is that a lot of individuals, most of which are women, cannot return to work because they cannot afford to work. They cannot afford the cost of child care."
Other line items in a household budget are on the rise, too, like the prices of housing and electricity.
And the looming possibility of even higher power bills is top of mind, said Jones.
"If you don't pay your power bill and get that disconnected, you run your risk of being evicted. And housing trumps whether or not you've got food in your fridge," she said.
'Like who's paying 10 bucks for celery?'
Another aspect of food insecurity is not being able to afford quality food — fresh fruit, vegetables, and other staples of a balanced diet.
The average Canadian family will pay up to an extra $487 for food this year, according to Canada's Food Price Report 2020.
"Look, it was only a few months ago that celery was $9.99. Like, who's paying 10 bucks for celery?" said Heather Bartlett, executive director at Daybreak Parent Child Centre in St. John's.
Fresh produce generally costs more than pre-packaged, processed food, and that's one reason more families are buying lower-quality food, in order to try to stretch their budget, she said.
"I've heard a lot of our families say that they're buying their groceries at Dollarama," Bartlett said. "You can't purchase fresh fruits or vegetables at Dollarama."
Stigma and shame
The anxiety that often accompanies the concern about having enough food can manifest as shame, said Bader.
And it isn't something that's talked about often.
You know, I never judge a parent who smokes or has a drink on a Friday night or something like that, because there are so many things you don't see that they're giving up.- Dara Squires
"[People] don't want to be pointed out or have to tell their story, because there is a lot of stigma attached. Or there's assumptions in place about addictions. That's just a lot of judgments put onto the person, so they don't want to come forward."
Squires can relate to that, saying her experiences have changed her view on assumptions like these.
"I think sometimes people look at families that are struggling and are like 'Well, you know, if they're struggling why are they doing this thing?' But often that's the thing keeping them sane," Squires said.
"I never judge a parent who smokes or has a drink on a Friday night or something like that, because there are so many things you don't see that they're giving up."
First steps to a solution
One thing is for certain, say all four women: the solution to food insecurity isn't going to come overnight.
Balsam, Bader, Bartlett and Jones say some sort of policy or all-encompassing approach is overdue, but in the meantime, several changes could create some momentum in tackling the issue.
For Bader, that starts with addressing the province's minimum wage. It's the second lowest in Canada at $11.40 an hour.
"I think there's an assumption or a bias around that, you know, it might be people on social assistance who struggle with food insecurity," Bader said.
"In fact, it's people in general, making minimum wage who struggle with food insecurity as well."
Squires wants to see a drop in food prices, and more support for those who wonder how they'll provide meals for their families.
"The price of [food] just keeps going up and up and up. And the income isn't going up with it," she said.
"There's no one you can go to as a parent, I mean, and say 'I need some kind of food credit this month' or something like that."
Balsam said people need to ditch their assumptions and be in tune with the struggles people in their community are facing.
"It's everyone's problem. It's not just problems of a single parent," she said. "Once we get the community on board, this will help everyone in the long run."
Fed Up is a yearlong series by CBC NL, in collaboration with Food First NL, exploring the issues surrounding food insecurity and why many people in the province are struggling to access food.
With files from Amy Joy and Adam Walsh
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