Healthy eating comes with a cost

Published on July 18, 2011
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.