PEI

Seniors food security program in Kings County should be made Island-wide amid rising costs, Greens say

Opposition MLA Karla Bernard says a pilot program that would provide meals for seniors in need should be made available all across P.E.I.

Province investing $250,000 to launch pilot in Kings County

'We know that food prices are drastically rising, and many of our Island elders are on fixed incomes and won't be able to cope with these increases,' says Green MLA Karla Bernard. (Province of P.E.I.)

An Opposition MLA says a pilot program that would provide meals for seniors in need in Kings County should be made available all across P.E.I.

During the tabling of the budget last Thursday, the provincial government said it will be investing $250,000 on a pilot program to deliver reheatable meals to seniors experiencing food insecurity or in need of nutritious meals. The program will initially only run in Kings County.

But during question period on Tuesday, Green MLA Karla Bernard said the province is "beyond a pilot" at this point, and that P.E.I. should be providing supports for all seniors the same way it does for students through the pay-what-you-can school meal program. 

"We've established that a school food program is crucial in this province. If there's one thing we know about hungry children [is that] they have hungry parents, hungry grandparents," she said. 

"The Poverty Elimination Strategy Act, it states that by Jan. 1, 2025, that food insecurity among all Islanders will be reduced by 50 per cent. That is less than three years away.... How can you expect to reach these targets if food security programs aren't made Island-wide and permanent immediately?"

P.E.I. Premier Dennis King says the intention would be to get the pilot project running Island-wide as soon as possible. (P.E.I. Legislature)

Bernard also questioned whether the government was restricting the pilot to Kings County for political reasons. 

The county predominantly voted for the Progressive Conservatives during the last provincial election.

"We know that food prices are drastically rising, and many of our Island elders are on fixed incomes and won't be able to cope with these increases," she said. 

"Question to the minister of social development and housing: For the seniors who don't live in districts represented by your government, how do you propose they cope with the rising cost of food?"

I think it's a county that really is suffering.— Russ Noiles

Premier Dennis King said the government chose Kings County for the pilot because a Montague community group approached them and asked for a partnership to help them feed seniors.

"Our intention would be to take it out across the province, Mr. Speaker, as soon as we possibly can," he said.

"I certainly don't think the people who stood up and contacted us to do this, Mr. Speaker, would care to think that this was some kind of political move, Mr. Speaker. And I think the suggestion otherwise is beneath this house."

Pandemic-era program effective, seniors federation says

Russ Noiles, president of the P.E.I. Senior Citizens' Federation, said there's definitely "great need" for that kind of support in Kings County.

"I'm in Lower Montague and I know around here I go by the food bank and it's always jammed on a Thursday," he said. 

"So there's a great need for food for people that can't afford, or lose their jobs or whatever. So I think it's a county that really is suffering."

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Earlier this year, the province ran a temporary meal delivery program for seniors who had been affected by the pandemic. Meals were delivered twice a week for those facing financial challenges or who had to self-isolate due to COVID-19.

The province said 350 seniors applied for the program. 

Noiles said the program was "well organized" and necessary at a time when food insecurity was made worse by the pandemic.

"It's definitely worse, there's no question about it," he said. "It just adds more suffering to older seniors."

Broader scope may be needed, expert says

Not much detail was given in the provincial budget as to how the new pilot will work.

We also have ... people located in rural settings, which can make accessing food potentially more difficult.— Sarah Hewko

Sarah Hewko, a dietitian who's an assistant professor at the University of Prince Edward Island, said that while it's always good to make this sort of investment, the program may not be too effective at addressing food insecurity if it targets only seniors.

"The best research we have actually does indicate that food insecurity decreases by half when somebody turn 65," she said.

"A lot of the reason for that is the [Canada] Pension Plan. So the people who are more likely to be food insecure are actually those people who haven't quite reached that point."

But Hewko also said the program could potentially benefit a great number of people due to P.E.I.'s older population. 

"We also have ... people located in rural settings, which can make accessing food potentially more difficult," she said. 

Hewko said malnutrition is a common issue among community-dwelling seniors, leading to an increased risk of infection and poor outcomes for chronic diseases, such as diabetes or cardiovascular diseases.

She said from a health-care perspective, that can lead to increased expenditures and hospitalizations.

The program could potentially run into issues when it comes to funding because nutritious food is expensive, and food prices are going up, Hewko said.

With files from Brittany Spencer

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