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Poor hit hard by rising prices for food: study


December 21, 2010
By By Heather Scoffield The Canadian Press

Dec. 21, 2010, Ottawa – The price of staple foods has been rising faster
than inflation, hitting the poor harder than others and forcing them to
make unhealthy compromises, a new study says. (Fruit and vegetable prices, as well as fish, however, come in below inflation.)

Dec. 21, 2010, Ottawa – The price of staple foods has been rising faster than inflation, hitting the poor harder than others and forcing them to make unhealthy compromises, a new study says.

The cost of basics for a low-income household’s dinner – baked goods, dairy and meat – has been outpacing the consumer price index, according to the Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity, a Toronto-based think-tank.

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“Food inflation is travelling at quite a higher level, and more recently so, than the regular CPI,’’ said co-author John Stapleton, a social policy consultant. “And the items that are tracking higher are the items that low-income people usually eat, and find the most available.’’

Fruit and vegetable prices, as well as fish, come in below inflation. But the poor are not buying as much of those products as wealthier people, the study found.

That’s mainly because stores in poor neighbourhoods don’t carry much fresh produce, the report says. It says big grocery stores tend to locate outside poor neighbourhoods, and low-income people tend to depend more on pre-packaged products with long shelf lives that dominate smaller corner stores. So for lower income groups, more expensive food is eating up a larger proportion of disposable income, putting pressure on the quality and quantity of food poor families can afford, according to the study.

“The current consumption of lower quality food by low-income families is an issue that cannot be ignored,’’ the authors say.

Higher prices for meat and baked goods are linked to a surge in global commodities tied to the global financial crisis in 2008. But higher dairy prices are a made-in-Canada phenomenon linked to supply management, the authors argue.

While the inflation phenomenon is fairly new, spending by low-income families has long been geared toward food of lower nutritional value, compared with middle-class and rich families, the study says. Every class tends to buy the same amount of food from each major food group in Health Canada’s Food Guide. But while the rich are eating salmon, beef loin cuts, shrimp and veal, the poor are eating bologna and ground beef. While the rich are eating fresh strawberries and plums, the poor are eating canned green beans, canned tomato juice and turnips.

The study looked mainly at food prices for the poor in Ontario, but the phenomenon has been noted in other parts of the country as well. Dietitians of Canada, for example, published a report last year about British Columbia, showing that food, as a proportion of support allowances, has soared over the last decade.

The costs to society of poor nutrition for low-income people are high, both studies point out, since it is linked to diabetes, obesity and overall bad health. Stapleton said obesity is often a direct result of poor families making poor food choices as they try to make ends meet. When money is running out, they opt for food that will fill them up quickly, rather than food that is nutritious.

He said the solution lies mainly in looking at what else the poor spend their money on: rent. Poor households have to pay the rent first, and use what is left over for food and clothing. So rather than simply raise social assistance payments – which is stigmatized, and misses huge chunks of the poor population – federal and provincial governments should consider a new housing benefit to help with the cost of shelter, Stapleton argues.

He adds that governments at all levels should look at incentives that would bring fresh food and grocery chains into poor neighbourhoods.


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