Low-income families struggle to feed kids healthy foods due to rising prices

TORONTO - Rising grocery prices in Canada have renewed calls for a national food policy as concerns over the number of Canadians living in so-called food-insecure households grows.

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Some four million Canadians, or about 12.7 per cent of households, experience some level of food insecurity, according to PROOF, a research group studying policy options to reduce the problem. More than 850,000 Canadians rely on food banks monthly, according to Food Banks Canada.

In Nunavut, where Statistics Canada data shows that food prices can be up to 3.1 times more expensive than the average cost in the rest of Canada, the problem is even more pronounced.

One in three people living in Nunavut are considered food insecure each month, according to Feeding Nunavut, an advocacy group working to improve the well-being of Canada's Northern residents.

Nearly 70 per cent of the territory's pre-school Inuit kids live in food-insecure households, the group says. It recently launched an awareness campaign asking Canadians to skip a meal for Nunavut.

Research shows children living in such homes can suffer other inequalities, including getting fewer opportunities to learn to eat healthy foods.

Another recent study has found that low-income parents are less likely than high-income parents to buy the healthier foods that their kids are likely to initially snub, like some green vegetables that may require several offerings before they're embraced.

"People won't take economic risk when they're not economically secure," said Caitlin Daniel, a PhD candidate in sociology at Harvard University who wrote the report. "People won't take food risks when they're food insecure."

Daniel spent two years interviewing nearly 100 caregivers in Boston about how they decide what to feed their kids. She observed dozens of them while they shopped for groceries.

Parents with limited financial means try to eliminate the risk of paying for food that will be wasted by buying what their kids enjoy eating, Daniel found, rather than experimenting with new ingredients or continuing to cook foods their kids have previously refused. This means they often buy less healthy foods, like Hot Pockets or frozen chicken nuggets.

Parents who don't have to budget every penny, on the other hand, can better absorb the cost of wasted food, her study found.

So in a low-income family, a baby steadfastly refusing avocado may only get the chance to do so once or twice. In a higher-income family, however, that same infant may be offered avocado until she starts to enjoy it.

It typically takes between eight and 15 attempts for a child to acquire a taste for a new food, according to the paper. Thus, children from low-income families can have poorer-quality diets, Daniel found, since their parents can't afford to continuously expose their children's taste buds to healthy options.

Lynn McIntyre, a University of Calgary adjunct professor and one of PROOF's investigators, has studied food insecurity in Canada for more than a decade.

A study she conducted in the early 2000s focused on low-income single mothers in Atlantic Canada dealing with food insecurity.

"One of the early findings there was: absolutely, you never give your kid something that they might spit out," she said. "You do not, you can not waste food."

This creates a social inequality where kids from food-insecure households may never learn to enjoy a variety of healthy fruits, vegetables and other foods, she said.

Programs exist to help grapple with the inequity. Schools, for example, can expose children to new foods through breakfast and lunch programs, as well as various cultural celebrations.

Daniel suggests schools and other organizations should receive adequate funding to expose children to an array of foods.

Other possibilities for help include enlisting pediatricians and nutritionists to advise parents to buy healthy foods that last long and can be divided easily into small portions, like frozen vegetables, or providing vouchers for specific foods, like Brussels sprouts, that people may otherwise not purchase.

But McIntyre says solving the problem is obvious.

"There's only one solution for food insecurity," she said, "and that's sufficient income to buy food."

That can come in the form of a basic income plan, she said.

"Income provides the opportunity for people to get the foods they like that are healthy, and to experiment, and to get rid of the stress."

Molly McCracken, Manitoba director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, echoes the need for fighting food insecurity with income in a commentary penned this month.

In his mandate letter to the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau instructed Minister Lawrence MacAulay to develop a food policy, but it made no mention of affordable food.


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