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Healthy eating a struggle for low-income Sarnia-area families: report – The Sarnia Observer

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Eating healthy may not be an option for many low-income residents, according to a survey of Sarnia-area food prices.

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Eating healthy may not be an option for many low-income residents, according to a survey of Sarnia-area food prices.

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After a pause of a few years during the COVID-19 pandemic, Lambton Public Health resumed annual monitoring of local food affordability and reported results of a survey carried out last spring at grocery stores and online food retailers.

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It found a family of four was spending $1,139 a month on food needed to follow Canada’s Food Guide.

The 2023 Nutritious Food Basket Report also looks at how household income and housing costs affect how much money is available for nutritious food, and the strain felt by those relying on government support programs, like Ontario Works.

A family of four, with a median monthly income of $9,290, typically spends 16 per cent of its income on housing and 12 per cent on healthy food, while a family of four living on $2,800 a month from Ontario Works spends 52 per cent on housing and 41 per cent on food, the report said.

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Along with the survey of local food prices, the report used rental market information from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.

“I think pretty much all of us have seen over the last few years that the cost of living is much higher,” said Michael Gorgey, Lambton Public Health’s health promotion manager.

As prices for groceries and other necessities, such as rent and utilities, rise, “sometimes that comes at a cost of lowering the quality or amount of food that people have available, especially people who are living with lower incomes,” he said.

One alarming report finding was that a single adult on Ontario Works would have to spend 101 per cent of their monthly income to rent a bachelor apartment, with nothing left for the $408 a month they need to eat a healthy diet.

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A single adult relying on the Ontario Disability Support Program spends 73 per cent of their income on rent, leaving them $43 a month short of what they need to spend on healthy eating, the report said.

A single woman, aged 70 or older, relying on Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement, spends half her income on rent and $296 a month on healthy eating.

Food and housing prices used in the report are likely even higher now, Gorgey said.

National and provincial data show nearly 16 per cent of households in Lambton County faced food insecurity in recent years, “which can make them more likely to experience mental health disorders, adverse mental health outcomes, and negative health impacts, including risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, poor oral health, increased risk of infectious disease and injury,” the report said.

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The agency also said unaffordable housing is linked to poor health, food insecurity and inadequate nutrition.

Lambton Public Health is required by the province to monitor health food costs, but it can do little on its own to fix problems the survey uncovers, Gorgey said.

“We’re here to work with our stakeholders (and governments to show) this is happening and that we need to work together to try and find a way to make things a little bit easier for people in our community,” he said.

Last year, Lambton County council declared affordable housing and shelter its top priorities.

Community and charity food programs can’t address food insecurity, the report said.

“Long-term, income-based strategies that address poverty and improve population health are needed to keep food affordable. Examples of these strategies include improving social assistance rates, raising minimum wage, improving employment standards, and providing a basic income,” it said.

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The Inn of the Good Shepherd, a charity running a food bank in Sarnia, has been hit with a 20 per cent increase in use and 20 per cent drop in food donations due to rising grocery prices.

“I’ve been calling it a double-edged sword,” said executive director Myles Vanni.

About 65 per cent of the 2,200 monthly food bank users are working, recently unemployed, retired or on disability benefits, he said.

Agencies and charities delivering food programs have been pushing the province to increase Ontario Works and disability payments, Vanni said.

“We lobby the government to say, ‘You should index the rates, because if inflation goes up, the assistance rates should go up by that amount,’ but they refuse to do it,” he said.

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