Women say eating healthy 'impossible' on Nova Scotia diet allowance

Social assistance recipients allege the special diet allowance from the Nova Scotia Department of Community Services has not increased by one penny since 1996.

'I have one apple a day because that's all I can squeeze out,' says Roxanne Barton

Social assistance recipients, like Roxanne Barton, allege the special diet allowance from the Nova Scotia Department of Community Services has not increased by one penny since 1996. (Mark Crosby/CBC)

Roxanne Barton knows she should eat three servings of fruit a day, but says she can't afford to because she receives so little money from the Department of Community Services to pay for her special diet.

"I have one apple a day because that's all I can squeeze out and I'm constantly running out of milk," she said Thursday.

"And the food insecurity is so bad at the end of the month like you're almost to the point you're so preoccupied with what you're going to eat."

Barton, who lives in Halifax, receives $837 a month as income assistance. That includes a $96 special diet allowance to help her eat as required for her medical conditions, such as chronic pancreatitis, prediabetes and a gastro-intestinal disorder.

Barton also receives about $125 from the Canadian Pension Plan. In total, she brings in just over $960 a month.

After she pays her $725 monthly rent, bus pass, utilities and phone, she says she maybe has $100 left for a month of groceries.

Food costs up

Barton is one of five social assistance recipients in Nova Scotia who asked a judge Thursday to set aside a Nova Scotia Human Rights decision to dismiss their discrimination case against the Department of Community Services. In their August 2015 complaint, the women allege the department has failed to increase the special diet allowance by one penny since 1996.

"And in 20 years, the cost of food has risen substantially," Barton said. "It's difficult for people working. It's impossible for people who are unable to work.

"And I have to have a special diet for health reasons. It's very difficult to maintain a healthy diet with so little funds to buy. So people are forced to food kitchens and food banks and it is demeaning to do that but you have no choice."

And living on meals like Kraft Dinner and bologna doesn't help Barton.

"There's no nutrition in that, there's nothing that's going to help me," she said.

Case could be 'quite significant'

Nova Scotia Legal Aid lawyer Vincent Calderhead represents Barton, Deborah Wright, Bonnie Barrett, Pamela Chandler, Michele Cox and the North End Community Health Centre. The women claim the department has discriminated against them based on disability.

In June, the commission ruled the complaint should not be referred to a board of inquiry because it did not think an investigation would turn up any evidence of discrimination. The complaint was filed in August 2015.

The five want the judge to direct the commission to refer the complaint to a hearing.

"If the case were to go to a hearing and a human rights board of inquiry were to find that the province has been acting in a discriminatory way with respect to the special diet allowances, the systemic impact for people in need, people in receipt of social assistance, could be quite significant both in terms of the dollar amounts and the numbers of people involved," Calderhead said.

About 10,000 Nova Scotians, ranging from infants to adults, receive assistance to pay for their special diets.

Few changes

On average, the department spends about $9 million per year on funding for special diets, department figures show. The amounts range from $30 per month to $300 per month based on the person's medical need.

Community Services Department spokeswoman Heather Fairbairn said there have been no significant changes to the rate schedule for special diets since the Employment Support and Income Assistance program began in 2001. The personal allowance, which is intended to cover food costs, has increased by approximately 53 per cent, from $180 to $275 during this period.

"This includes a $20 increase in the personal allowance implemented in April 2016 that will cost government over $7 million annually," Fairbairn wrote in a statement.

"There has been no change in the shelter allowance in the last 10 years."

Justice James Chipman will release his decision in the New Year.

About the Author

Sherri Borden Colley

Reporter

Sherri Borden Colley has been a reporter for more than 20 years. Many of the stories she writes are about social justice, race and culture, human rights and the courts. To get in touch with Sherri email sherri.borden.colley@cbc.ca