N.S. not doing enough to help impoverished families feed their kids, says expert
'We do not provide the economic security for families to do the work of feeding their babies'
A food insecurity expert says the Nova Scotia government needs to do more to ensure families living in poverty can afford to feed their babies.
Lesley Frank is an associate professor of sociology at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., and the co-author of the Canadian Centre For Policy Alternatives' annual Nova Scotia Poverty Report Card. Her latest research found 31 per cent of newborns to two-year-olds live below the poverty line.
Frank said women who can least afford formula end up being the ones most often buying it.
"It has everything to do with food insecurity and poverty," said Frank, the author of Out of Milk: Infant Food Insecurity in a Rich Nation, which recently came out.
She said there's a misconception that breastfeeding is free and easy. In a recent paper she co-authored, Frank found that if someone in Nova Scotia is making below $15 an hour, they cannot afford a nutritious, well-balanced diet.
"If you don't have that wage, you are still hundreds of dollars a month in the hole if you bought the [food] everyone requires if you're lactating or buying formula," said Frank.
Many women need to increase their caloric intake to produce enough milk for an infant. Canada's Food Guide says mothers need 350 to 400 extra calories per day during the first year of breastfeeding. Nova Scotia public health officials recommend getting those additional calories with an extra serving from two or three different food groups daily.
Frank said her research found in some family scenarios, it was only $30 cheaper a month to breastfeed than to purchase formula given the cost of nutritious food a mother needs to breastfeed a baby.
She said some people who require or choose to formula feed are forced to take whatever they can get for formula, including at food banks where donations can be inconsistent.
She said food banks and other charities aren't the solution.
"We do not provide the economic security for families to do the work of feeding their babies," said Frank.
She said income assistance in Nova Scotia leaves families thousands of dollars under the poverty line every year, while parental leave is based on previous income earned. For individuals earning minimum wage —$12.55 per hour — they will only make 55 per cent of those wages on a 12-month parental leave.
When parents can't afford to feed a baby, there are broader consequences. One woman in Frank's book described going days living on just coffee while she and her partner gave food to their children first, eating only what they left behind. The parents got formula from a family resource centre and food bank, but also resorted to stealing it when things got particularly desperate.
In a statement to CBC News, a spokesperson for the Department of Community Services said they recognize Nova Scotian families need more support. The statement said the province has launched and supported several initiatives aimed at tackling poverty.
The province said it's spending more money on the Nova Scotia child benefit to increase to increase the amount of money each family receives, as well as expand program eligibility. This will result in an additional 6,100 families and 10,000 more children being eligible, which works out to a total of 28,000 families and 49,000 children.
The province also noted that it:
- Strengthened job protection for parents on parental or pregnancy leave.
- Exempted child support payments from income assistance calculations.
- Raised the minimum wage by $1 an hour to $12.55 on April 1.
A maternal nutritional allowance of $51 per month is also available to expectant mothers on income assistance, which continues to be paid for the first year after a child is born.
Findings upsetting, but not surprising
Joanna Latulippe-Rochon is the executive director of the Cape Breton Family Place Resource Centre. She helped Frank contact some of the women whose stories are featured in the book. She said many of the mothers she works with are not just dealing with poverty.
"We hear women who feel like they're failing as women, there seems to be an expectation that this all comes naturally," she said, adding that when women can't breastfeed, their self-esteem often takes a hit and that can impact mental health.
Latulippe-Rochon said Frank's findings were upsetting, but not surprising.
"It's tough stuff to read," she said. "It saddens me that we're in Canada and we have this kind of a situation that really doesn't get the kind of attention."