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Paying for healthy food and rent 'absolutely impossible' for many in K-W

The rising cost of food and housing in Waterloo region means more people are choosing between paying the rent and feeding their kids, according to a report going before the region’s community services committee.

“People simply can’t afford both,” said Coun. Elizabeth Clarke, chair of the community services committee.

The latest edition of the Nutritious Food Basket report shows the weekly cost of healthy food is now at $202.29 per week for a family of four in the region. That’s an increase of $40.49 per month since the survey was last done in 2017.

The food basket is a tool that public health officials use to calculate the local cost of an ideal basket of healthy food for different household sizes. It’s then compared to the cost of housing, to see how easy it is for families to afford their basic necessities.

In Waterloo region, Clarke said the cost of rent has gone up nine per cent in the last two years, and people are having a harder time making ends meet.

“We’re certainly not seeing people’s incomes increase at anything like that level,” she said.

The report said about 10 per cent of the regional population struggle with food insecurity, although Clarke said she thinks there may be more.

Single people have it hardest

The report analyzed several household scenarios, comparing a family of four living on Ontario Works, minimum wage and on a median income.

It also looked at single men living on Ontario Works and ODSP, a single woman on old age security and a single woman with two kids on Ontario Works.

The single men on social assistance fared the worst. They would have to go into debt to afford healthy food along with the average monthly cost of rent.

“For single people it’s absolutely impossible,” said Clarke.

Only the family of four with a median income could comfortably afford food and rent, the report said. Everyone else was stuck paying more than 30 per cent of their income on rent, which puts them at a greater risk of food insecurity.

Food insecurity is associated with poor mental and physical health, the report said. It also interferes with people’s ability to perform at work and school, with research showing that kids from food-insecure households have poorer academic performance.

“[This] presents a major challenge in breaking the cycle of poverty since educational attainment is a critical factor in one’s eventual income and economic status,” the report said.

‘No extras’ in food basket

Food baskets were calculated using a range of healthy food items, based on the 2007 version of Canada’s Food Guide. Only the barest necessities were included, Clarke said.

“There’s no extras at all,” she said, such as allowances for meals out or special foods for dietary restrictions.

Staff also calculated the cost of different groceries based on the lowest price available at a range of stores, which is something most low-income people don’t have the luxury to do, Clarke said.

“[People who are low income] have transportation problems as well, so usually they’re not able to be as deliberate and as thorough as the public health people are when they come up with these numbers,” she said.

Housing costs were calculated using numbers from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

“The basic expression is having to choose between paying the rent and feeding the kids,” said Coun. Clarke. “I think that is the reality for about 10 per cent of our population, probably more than that.” (Facebook)

Basic income could help: Clarke

Although the region has some control in creating more affordable housing, Clarke said there isn’t much it can do to keep down the cost of food. The region is also home to a number of food hamper programs, but Clarke said those are just “bandage” solutions.

“They don’t solve what is really a fundamental problem of not enough income,” she said.

Instead, Clarke said it’s time for the government to take a closer look at income-based solutions, such as the now-cancelled basic income pilot project.

Even so, Clarke said solving food insecurity is a complex problem that calls for more than one solution.

“I think there are different roles that all the different levels of government need to play so that people can make ends meet.”

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