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The dilemma between healthy eating and staying above the poverty line Add to ...

Kelly is a single mother, one among the hundreds of thousands of working-poor Canadians who simply can’t afford to put nutritious food on their tables.

The Nova Scotia mother of eight children – four of whom are at home and range in age from three to 11 – earns $11 an hour, which is 60 cents above the province’s minimum wage, at her 33-hour-a-week job at a daycare in her community.

“It is hard to keep things going,” she says. “I don’t think you know stress [like this]. I’ll dish out their food and … when they are done eating, if there is enough food left over, then okay, I get supper. If not then it might be picking off of their plate, but that’s how it’s always been with me since I’ve had kids. I’d rather see the kids eat, and me go without than for them to still be hungry.”

More than 1.7 million households, or four million Canadians, are affected by some level of “food insecurity,” which means they can’t, or they constantly worry about being able to, properly feed their families because they lack the means. That’s almost half a million more than five years earlier, according to the latest Statistics Canada data.

Nova Scotia households report among the highest rates of “food insecurity” in the country, according to a Nova Scotia-based study recently published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health. And Halifax had the highest rate among big cities, with one in five households at risk.

The Nova Scotia study comes as the percentage of Canadians on minimum wage continues to climb, and amid a North America-wide debate about tying minimum wage to inflation to better address the growing concern around the issue of income inequality. As economists, academics and activists debate the causes and consequences of growing income inequality, the most basic of issues remains the ability to put food on the table – not wieners and macaroni, but nutritious food for optimal health outcomes.

“We often think that if you’re employed full-time you should be able to meet all your basic needs, but our research shows that it’s still a problem,” says Dr. Patricia Williams, the Mount Saint Vincent University professor who co-wrote the report.

Kelly, 37, – who doesn’t want her name used – suffers from anxiety and depression, as she struggles daily to provide nutritious food for her kids, scanning for deals on chicken and ground beef, and relying on the monthly food bank. On Thursday night she served her family spaghetti with meat sauce. Friday night was leftovers. Once a week, there is a hot dog and Kraft Dinner night and for another meal she will serve either chicken thighs or legs “because they are the cheapest.”

According to the Nova Scotia study, a single mother with three children in the province, earning the minimum wage, will be nearly $500 in the red every month if she were to purchase nutritional food (that’s after paying for other basic living costs such as rent, heat, hydro). A family of four, meanwhile, with two adults working for minimum wage, would face a monthly deficit of $44.89.

The study looked at minimum-wage data from 2002 to 2012, and used the National Nutritious Food Basket, a Health Canada measurement of 67 foods easily found in grocery stores, eaten by most Canadians and considered nutritionally balanced, to cost the food. And it concluded that the “risk of food insecurity is a critical public-health issue for low wage earners.”

The effects of a poor diet are well known. Along with stress and low energy in the short term, poor nutrition over a long time period puts people at risk for obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke, and a myriad other illnesses.

Dr. Valerie Tarasuk, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Department of Nutritional Sciences, has done significant research on food insecurity and the consequences for Canadians’ health, and on the health care system.

“If we look at any point in time … people exposed to food insecurity are in worse health and they are less able to manage their health problems, so they are absolutely costing the taxpayer money,” she says. “We can see that people who are food-insecure are more likely to report having been diagnosed with a whole range of chronic conditions.”

Those conditions include, but aren’t limited to, asthma, back problems, arthritis, hypertension, diabetes and depression.

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