Opinion Column

Access to healthy food makes for a healthier community

By Brittany Doner

(QMI Agency file photo)

(QMI Agency file photo)

Old sayings like “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” or “you are what you eat” exist to remind us of the important role nutrition plays in staying healthy at every age.

Not only is there no shortage of evidence to prove nutritious food is a foundation for healthy growth and development, research has shown that a lack of nourishing food can result in nutritional deficiencies and increased risk of health problems.

Moreover, a proper diet is vital in the management of many physical health conditions.

With this in mind, residents across Simcoe County collectively built the principle of “Equal Access to Safe and Healthy Food for All” into the Simcoe County Food and Agriculture Charter, a document that outlines the values and visions the community holds towards its local food system.

Once implemented, the charter will act as a guiding document in the development of local food and agriculture policies, food security programs and an overall sustainable local food system.

“While equal access to safe and healthy food is an excellent goal to work towards, it is far from the reality we are currently facing,” said Jane Shrestha, registered dietitian and public health nutritionist for the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit. “Unfortunately, we know that for some Simcoe County residents, finding enough money to put healthy food on the table can seem like an impossible task.”

Each spring, the health unit carries out a “Nutritious Food Basket” survey in grocery stores to find out how much it costs to eat a basic healthy diet.

The foods surveyed included a variety of choices from the Canada Food Guide’s four food groups.

Only items that can be used to prepare a week’s worth of healthy nutritious meals are included, while items such as pop and chips, as well as and non-food items like laundry soap, paper towels, and shampoo, are excluded.

“For many people on social assistance or with income from pensions or minimum-wage work, the ability to maintain a healthy diet is becoming more and more difficult,” Shrestha said.

For example, a family of four on Ontario Works would need 91% of their income to cover food and rent, leaving only $180 a month to pay for utilities, transportation, clothing and other day-to-day needs or emergencies. If the family’s income came from one person working full time at the current minimum wage ($10.25 per hour) it would take 70% of their earnings to cover food and rent alone.

For comparison’s sake, a middle-income family of four would need 29% of their income to cover the cost of food and rent.

So what can be done to make sure everyone in Simcoe County has access to enough of the foods they need to stay healthy?

Changes are needed at the federal and provincial levels to make sure social assistance, pension and minimum-wage rates provide people with enough money to make food affordable by covering the real cost of basic necessities, including healthy food and rent.

Additionally, there are some actions that can be taken right here in Simcoe County. Many residents have shared a wide range of action-oriented ideas to assist in making charter goals a reality. For example, there is a desire in the community to see the implementation of community meal programs, community gardens, collective kitchens, cooking classes, student nutrition programs, good food box initiatives and the reintroduction of home-economics in high schools.

Developing partnerships with local farmers is also key.

With help from municipalities, local businesses, community organizations and other local “movers and shakers”, including funders and volunteers, the results could make healthy local foods more available for local consumers while putting more dollars in local farmers’ pockets.

By working together on solutions at every level we can help to make the Charter Principle “Equal Access to Healthy and Nutritious Food for All” a reality for Simcoe County.

The complete 2012 Nutritious Food Basket report is available at www.smdhu.org/FoodBasket.

Food Matters is a monthly column addressing a variety of relevant topics concerning the food system in Simcoe County, as identified by the Simcoe County Food and Agriculture Charter.

For more information, visit www.fpa.simcoe.ca.

Brittany Donor is project manager, Simcoe County Food & Agriculture Charter, and Simcoe County Long Term Affordable Housing Strategy.

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