Adequate food not an option on social assistance

Most Canadian provinces are not providing people on social services enough money to buy food for a healthy diet, and that will be costly in the long-term, say poverty experts.

Only Newfoundland and Labrador fully funding a healthy diet

Most Canadian provinces are not providing people on social assistance enough money to buy food for a healthy diet, and that will be costly in the long-term, say poverty experts.

Governments will end up paying the price for the health and social problems created by not providing people on social assistance with the money they need for a healthy diet, says professor Valerie Tarasuk. (CBC)

"I think it's nuts," says University of Toronto nutritional sciences professor Valerie Tarasuk.

Particularly for the young, said Tarasuk, a poor diet will lead to problems governments will end up paying for.

"To have somebody who grows up and develops chronic conditions like asthma or depression, things that will need treatment for the rest of those kids lives, to have them not perform well in school and therefore not be able to move effectively into the job market," she said.

Health Canada has developed a 69-item grocery list that it considers essential for a healthy diet. Because food costs vary from province to province, even from city to town to rural areas, calculating whether people on welfare can afford a healthy diet can be complicated. A CBC News investigation shows, in most provinces, the money comes up short.

CBC found only one province, Newfoundland and Labrador, provided 100 per cent of the cost of a healthy diet to people on social assistance.  Data could not be found for Quebec, Saskatchewan or Manitoba.

New Brunswick was at the bottom, providing just 35 per cent of the cost of a healthy diet, according to figures provided by the Department of Social Development. An official with that department estimated 30% of basic rates should be allocated for food. Newfoundland and Labrador actually went above the rate, funding at 134 per cent.

Reviewing the rates

Prince Edward Island is in the midst of a process to increase its social assistance rates.

Most Canadians on social assistance cannot afford the fruits and vegetables they need to stay healthy. ((Danny Johnston/Associated Press))

The province currently covers 61 per cent of healthy diet costs. It has been consulting with advocacy groups about bringing those rates up. One group told CBC News government officials told them it would cost $8 million a year to fully fund a healthy diet for people on social assistance, and the province can't afford to do that.

The government's current proposal, the groups say, is to bring the rates up to 70 per cent over the next five years. The province was providing money for a full, healthy diet as recently as 2002, but rates have gone up only once since then.

Provincial government officials declined to comment on this story.

P.E.I. social assistance monthly food budget for a family of four: $487

U of T researcher Valerie Tarasuk understands it might be difficult for a small province to find $8 million, but she wonders if the government has taken the time to calculate the costs of not spending that money.

Tarasuk is not alone in her concerns. Patty Williams, the Canada Research Chair in Food Security at Mount St. Vincent University in Halifax, said research shows a healthy diet can help prevent about a third of chronic disease.

"Can you put a price tag, I don't know," said Williams.

"When you think about the consequences of deprivation in terms of basic human need, it's a huge cost to society in the end if we don't address this."

Newfoundland and Labrador reduced its food insecurity significantly after improving its social assistance program eight years ago, said Tarasuk, and that proves changes to social assistance can have an impact.

Percentage of healthy diet cost provided on social assistance
Newfoundland and Labrador (2011) 134% Food insecurity rate down from 16% in 2007 to 11% in 2011
Nova Scotia (2014) 59% Food assistance indexed to inflation
New Brunswick (2011)  35% Based on 30% of basic assistance going to food
P.E.I. (2014) 61% Rates currently under review
Ontario (2011) 76% This calculation for Toronto, where food costs would be lower than other parts of province
Alberta (2014) 52% This calculation for Edmonton, where food costs would be lower than some of other parts of province
British Columbia (2011) 46% Does not include funding of community food initiatives and extensive school meals programs