Healthy eating comes with a cost

Andrew Robinson
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Ken Chidley, an employee with the provincial Department of Works, Services and Transportation, checks out freshly made salads at Belbin's on Quidi Vidi Road on Wednesday afternoon. - Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram.

The cost of providing nutritious meals has risen steadily over the past decade, but it’s not the only problem for those working within a tight budget.

While rising costs can create barriers to accessing food in this province, geography also plays a role, according to the executive director of the Newfoundland and Labrador Food Security Network.

“Cost of food is a big one and a big barrier to purchasing healthy food in the province, but there’s also physical access to healthy food, which a lot of the rural communities really struggle with,” said Kristie Jameson, seated in the boardroom of the non-profit group’s St. John’s office.

From 2000 to 2010, the cost of nutritious food for a family of four on the island portion of the province increased by 41.5 per cent according to the Newfoundland and Labrador Nutritious Food Basket survey.

The annual survey, carried out by regional health authorities in co-operation with Department of Health and Community Services and the Newfoundland and Labrador Statistics Agency, determines the weekly cost to nutritiously feed a family consisting of a man and woman (ages 25-49 years), a boy (age 13-15 years) and a girl (age seven to nine years).

The provincial average in 2000, excluding Labrador, was almost $120, and by 2010 that figure had climbed to almost $170.

The difference in cost between urban and rural settings has been negligible in most of the six regions surveyed, but the difference in Labrador is dramatic — $175 in urban areas versus $279 in rural communities.

Jill Airhart, a co-ordinator for the Food Security Network in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, said food for coastal communities travels on a 1,200-kilometre gravel road before it reaches Happy Valley-Goose Bay to be distributed elsewhere.

“By the time it reaches us, we’re paying a lot of money for it, and it’s not very good quality,” she said.

The Air Foodlift Subsidy, overseen by the provincial government, provides funds for stores carrying fruits and vegetables to help reduce the cost for consumers in coastal Labrador.

Jameson said many rural Newfoundlanders live in communities without stores that sell fruits or vegetables. This forces shoppers to spend extra money on gas to travel to other towns that may be an hour’s drive away or more.

“As soon as you get off the Avalon and start getting into the rural communities, these are communities where the populations are shrinking and not large enough to sustain a grocery store,” she said.

Jameson said there has been an increase in community-minded efforts. Those projects include community gardens, community kitchens promoting methods for preparing healthy meals, and farmer’s markets selling local goods.

“These things over the last 10 years have just skyrocketed in numbers across Newfoundland and Labrador,” said Jameson.

Airhart said similar projects are being looked at to help Labrador. There are 12 commercial farms in Labrador, and a farmer’s market is expected to open in Happy Valley-Goose Bay next month.

Within the aboriginal population of coastal Labrador, Airhart said many still value the hunting culture and use it to feed family and friends.

Bad habits

High salt consumption remains a staple of Newfoundland diets and is known to contribute to heart disease.

Obesity has also been a problem, with food preferences, time available for meal preparation, and cost issues all likely contributors.

“When you look at the health of the province, you can clearly see something is going on, and that people do not have access to enough healthy food,” said Jameson. “We have really high rates of obesity, diabetes and chronic disease.”

While the cost of nutritious food has been on the rise, so too has per capita income in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Preliminary data released by the Newfoundland and Labrador Statistics Agency in April found per capita personal income increased by 59.2 per cent — from $21,066 to $33,529 — between 2000 and 2010.

Does this mean it’s easier today for people to purchase healthy foods?

Jameson is not entirely sure. While it may be logical for increased income to ease the burden for families when it comes to food purchase, Jameson said people may spend those extra dollars on other interests.

A Statistics Canada report on spending patterns found the percentage of average household expenditures used for food in Newfoundland and Labrador has dropped from 2005 to 2009 — from 11.9 per cent of all household expenditures down to 11.3 per cent.

Over the same period of time, the percentage of average household expenditures used for communications, transportation, and shelter in this province has risen.

Margie Coombs, a regional nutritionist with Eastern Health, said there are shortcuts to eating healthy. They can make a weekly meal plan, look for specials, and consult the Canada Food Guide.

Frozen and canned vegetables are a budget-conscious alternative to their fresh counterparts, and Coombs also said smaller meal portions and incorporating meatless meals into the weekly routine can benefit the pocketbook.

Children are a vulnerable group, according to Coombs, as they develop eating habits that may stick with them for life.

“You hope children can be exposed to a good variety of food in the early years to help them learn healthy habits that will stay with them for life,” she said.

However, she’s quick to point out healthy eating habits are important throughout life.

Organizations: Newfoundland and Labrador Statistics Agency, Newfoundland and Labrador Food Security Network, Newfoundland and Labrador Nutritious Food Basket Department of Health and Community Statistics Canada Canada Food Guide.Frozen

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Happy Valley, Goose Bay

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Recent comments

  • mary
    July 18, 2011 - 15:10

    I am surprised at the $170. per week for a family of 4, seems to me that it would be higher. I note that specials are not always that special - original price is higher than at competitor or have to buy mulitple items to get the deal. As I buy for 1 or 2, varies, it can be diffucult to take advantage of any specials and buying small amounts can be more expensive. Bulk buying isn't always possible. Then, at times, bulk buying isn't any cheaper. The increase in costs cannot be justified.

  • tom
    July 18, 2011 - 14:10

    milk and some other things could be sold in 4 litre containers and offer some bulk savings, like other provinces, but the producers are not willling to do it.

  • Wow
    July 18, 2011 - 13:23

    I think the cost of healthy food is atrocious when you see a small container of blueberries costing $4.99 at the grocery store. A small head of organic lettuce for $3.99. But really what's more upsetting is that when we ARE able to get good lettuce here, it goes bad in a few days because it's been in transit for so long leading up to the shelf. I do, however, appreciate the tax break on these foods. My understanding is that chips, bars, soda, etc are all taxed, but the good stuff isn't? At the end of the day, regardless of the cost, we have to be aware of what we're putting in our bodies. If we spend a little more to get juice instead of pop, and spend a little more to get fresh vegetables over high-sodium prepared foods, we can offset that cost by eating out less. Further to that, people shouldn't complain about the cost of milk and juice if they're spending money on things like cigarettes and beer. I think the government could get a handle on fair prices if they had more control over our spending in other areas.

  • Organic
    July 18, 2011 - 11:57

    why isn't there a committee like the Public Utilities Board monitoring the price of food in our stores. It is ridiculous that many people resort to buying Bars/chips/carbonated drinks and so on and so on just because it is cheaper. There should be government regulations and caps put on pricing for healthier foods. What kind of world would we have if prices were reversed: Junk food being very expensive and healthy food very affordable: Healthy people/less wait room times/less medicated people. Ummm I wonder.....

  • lynn
    July 18, 2011 - 11:16

    It is pretty sad when a 2L of milk costs $3.79 and a 2L of Big 8 costs as little as 88 cents, or even frozen juice can cost $1.69. This is just one example of why low income families are not always able to provide the best nutrional choices.

    • JT
      July 18, 2011 - 14:16

      You can thank the milk marketing board (cartel) for that.

    • Wrong
      July 18, 2011 - 21:46

      Talk about apples and oranges. Milk is more expensive than soft drinks and frozen orange juice because it takes cows to produce it. Raising, feeding and keeping a healthy herd is expensive. That extra step in production adds a lot of cost. As for the milk marketing board, they only set the price paid to farmers. Processors and retailers are free to set their prices as they wish.

  • Bibbie from NL
    July 18, 2011 - 10:10

    Personal income may have increase between 2000 and 2010 but usually when that happens people have more demanding jobs and are putting in more time at work. Also, children are involved in so many outside activities that parents are pressed for time and don’t have time to prepare meals at home. When this happens, people either bring take-out food such as Pizza or Fried chicken home or they go out to eat to save time. When they do eat out, salad is not what they always order. It maybe an appetizer but, usually kids and parents order the not so healthy food. What child when they eat out wants a salad if they can have a burger and French fries? Also, salads and milk for example are so expensive that people on a low income can’t afford it and can buy pop and processed food for less. With so much fast food being eaten, we will always have a problem of too much salt in our diet, obesity and diabetes. Obesity rate may not be as high if kids would exercise more instead of looking at TV and spending time on their computer.

  • Maggy Carter
    July 18, 2011 - 09:46

    It is unfortunate that government agencies are still promulgating unsound health advice. For example, Eastern Health should not be encouraging the consumption of frozen and especially canned foods. Aside from the abundance of salt and absence of important vitamins in canned foods, we now know that the lining of the can is toxic. Like many plastic bottles, the inside of cans is coated with BPA - a cancer causing agent. Indeed the chemical probably leaches into food more rapidly than is the case with plastic bottles. Fresh frozen food products were always regarded as the next best thing to fresh. That was true when we were doing the freezing ourselves, without additives. For reasons that have nothing to do with the preservation of foods, commercially frozen products - even raw ones - are now habitually adulterated with salt, sugar and other unnecessary additives. Raw skinless, boneless chicken breasts, for example, are now frozen in water with salt and sometimes even sugar. The ingredient list for frozen processed foods, which account for the lion's share of supermarket freezer space, is downright toxic. It is not uncommon for example for one portion (and who eats just one portion?) to contain almost a whole day's allowance of salt. Trans-fats are still common as are a host of other cheap, unhealthy ingredients. The bottom line is that fresh, whole, unadulterated foods essential to a healthy diet are not only prohibitively expensive for many families but increasingly hard to find. Newfoundlanders need to get rid of their toxic manicured lawns and plant foods that are nutritious and that are well tolerated in our climate and soil. We also need to tell governments that they are doing a terrible job protecting the integrity of our food chain and ensuring that fresh local products are available to everyone at a reasonable cost. Our hospitals are filled with people suffering lifestyle diseases, a major contributor to which is a nutritionally deficient diet. The true cost of our increasingly toxic food supply is much higher than indicated on your grocery receipt.

    • Sylvia
      July 19, 2011 - 01:25

      I live in a Northern area of BC surrounded by farmland and groceries are notable more expensive from week to week. When I make a trip to NL my favorite pass time is strolling though my parents vegetable garden. Carrots, corn, cabbage onions, potatoes.. nothing tastes better than a carrot fresh out of the ground. It is true what you say Maggie regarding the additives and preservatives in so called "fresh" frozen foods, but it seems no matter where you go the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables are getting beyond the reach of most moderate income families.

  • Julie
    July 18, 2011 - 07:41


  • Julie
    July 18, 2011 - 07:40

    Interesting article