By: Nicole O’Brien and Alex Debets
Here’s some food for thought: one out of 10 families in the Durham Region is food insecure.
People such as Oshawa residents Peter and Gloria, who, though may never go hungry, regularly use food banks and visit soup kitchens on a daily basis. They have a tough time making ends meet because they live on social assistance from the province.
“I’ve been coming here for about ten years,” says Peter. “We like it here.”
According to the Durham Region Health, food insecurity is defined as “not having access to enough safe and nutritious food due to lack of money.” Families are often worried about running out of food, so settle for lower quality foods, and eat less to save money.
These aren’t just people who visit food banks and soup kitchens. Food insecurity can happen to anyone.
According to the health region, those most affected by food insecurity are single parents with children under age 18, people on Ontario Works, people on Ontario Disability Support program, seniors living on old age pension, and college and university students.
Don Macleod, president and chair of Back Door Mission, says food insecurity is a big problem in the area.
“On a typical day, we have about 10 to 15 people looking for small parcels of food,” says Macelod.
Backdoor Mission in Oshawa works to relieve the stresses of poverty within economically deprived pockets of the city.
Along with serving food three times a week, the mission gives out food tickets for St. Vincent’s Kitchen, located in Oshawa, twice a week.
Macleod says the meal tickets are great, but a lack of transportation is a major problem.
“I have a number of people asking me for bus tickets,” he says. “A lot of them walk everywhere.”
Other causes of food insecurity include low income, low education and lack of food skills.
Macleod says understanding what is and what isn’t nutritious food is a whole other issue on its own.
“The thing that concerns me is not so much that people are lacking food to eat, though there are certainly people that are hungry,” Macleod says. “It’s what they are eating.”
Healthy eating and food insecurity are dependent on being able to find and purchase healthy food.
But healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables, cost significantly more than unhealthy foods such as canned goods and Kraft dinner. For example, at Walmart, a small bag of baby carrots can cost around $1.67. Compare that to a box of Kraft dinner for $1.27, which is a basically a meal in a box.
According to a 2013 study by Harvard School of Public Health, a healthy diet can cost about $1.50 more per day than an unhealthy one. This doesn’t seem like a lot at first glance, but that adds up to about $2,000 on the average family of four’s grocery bill.
Those suffering from food insecurity may chose the lower quality food over the expensive healthy food because it still fills them up and costs less.
Food insecurity is also linked to household income. When people make less, people do not have enough money to pay for rent, bills and food.
Oshawa residents Edward and Barbara use the Back Door Mission weekly. They finally found a place to live after being shut down multiple times by landlords.
“I’ve been turned down because I have children. I have been turned down because I am not working,” Eric said. “And trying to find a place to live is really hard, the prices are very very high.”
Macelod says this adds even more challenges to already stretched families.
“Part of the reason why housing is such a problem is that it’s kind of a base thing,” he says. “You need to have some place to live before you can work on other things like getting a job and eating well.”
According to a 2016 Durham Region Health report, it costs $837 a month to feed a family of four in Durham.
TThe average Ontario income in 2016 was about $7,448 per month. And the average rent rate is $1,203. So how much is left over at the end of the month?
For the average family of four, this may not be an issue since it works out to about $5,408.
Those on Ontario Works, more commonly known as welfare, aren’t so lucky.
According to Durham Region Health, the average Ontario Works income is $1,227 per month. After paying rent and grocery bills, those on welfare are left with only $187.
Not having financial access to a healthy diet can lead to a whole set of health problems. At any age, poor nutrition puts people at greater risk for chronic disease, infection and lowered immunity. According to Health Canada, those suffering from food insecurity report higher rates of depression, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and hypertension.
These problems can cost more money and more time for those already financially strained, according to the local health region. As a result, the cycle of food insecurity and poor health is a difficult one to break, resulting in expensive costs to the Ontario health care system.
The healthcare system cost the province $2.9 billion in 2008, according to Durham Region Health.
There are options available via the regional government to assist families and social service groups in promoting food security in Durham. These tools include lists of food resources in the region, such as food banks and breakfast clubs.
Others can directly assist through donations to non-profits such as Feed the Need and Back Door Mission or volunteer their own time at a soup kitchen.
Meanwhile, for Peter and Gloria, next week will be the same as this week: another trip to the food bank.
We have changed the names of the families involved to protect their privacy.