Medical community urges health food supplement
TORONTO - A $100 monthly increase for Ontario welfare recipients would help put fresh, nutritious food on the tables of people who rely on social assistance, an advocacy group said Thursday as it further pressed the government to include a "healthy food supplement" in the upcoming budget.
"We don't want to live in a province where people don't have enough to eat," said Janet Gasparini, chairwoman of the Social Planning Network of Ontario.
"That's Third World poverty, and it's not what we should be accepting in Ontario."
The group, which includes members of the Association of Local Public Health Agencies, the 25 in 5 Network for Poverty Reduction, and Toronto's medical officer of health, brought the message to a food bank and soup kitchen. The Stop serves 16,000 people a year and the number is rising.
"With the economy bursting at the seams, we're running at about a 20 per cent increase," said executive director Nick Saul, who described the supplement as something that's been a long time in coming.
"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that there is a vast gulf between what one receives when they're on social assistance and what one needs to live with health and dignity."
When asked how a $100 boost -- outlined last week in a report released by 25 in 5 -- would be tracked to ensure it's spent on healthy food, Saul said there's no need.
"No one says the Ontario Child Benefit has to be spent on kids," he said. "I think people who are in low-income situations know exactly where that money has to be spent."
In 1995, then Conservative premier Mike Harris cut welfare rates in the province by 22 per cent, citing his desire to reduce welfare rolls and get the unemployed back to work.
Currently, a single person on welfare in Ontario receives $572 a month. A parent with one child under 12 gets $920, while a parent with two children gets $967. The monthly amount increases for parents with teenage children.
Last week, Premier Dalton McGuinty said the budget would include new measures to help the poorest families even though the province is struggling through difficult financial times, but he did not give specifics.
While McGuinty warned in the fall he wouldn't be able to go as far and as fast as first planned on the poverty file because of the economic downturn, he's now pointing to federal aid as lending a helping hand.
For 10 years, public health units across Ontario have reported on the nutritious food basket -- a standardized tool that measures the cost of basic healthy eating by looking at the prices of 66 specific foods.
Since 2006, the cost of Toronto's food basket has increased more than nine per cent. In Middlesex-London, the increase is more than 8.5 per cent, and in Ottawa close to eight per cent.
A recent study by the Heart and Stroke Foundation found close to half of Canadians admit to occasionally going without things like fresh fruit and vegetables and meat because they cost too much.
It's not surprising then that health problems ensue, said Toronto medical officer of health Dr. David McKeown.
"Household food insecurity is linked to a higher risk of chronic illness, depression, heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure," said McKeown, who was on hand to back the $100 initiative.
A woman who identified herself only as Ange, who is both a volunteer and client at The Stop, said she's been on social assistance for the last two decades and is now also on disability. Ange said she would use the $100 to buy vitamins and foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids -- something she said she knows is good for the brain but simply can't afford.
"Because we can't afford the good, vitamin-rich food we need, so many of us slide into depression," she said.
The group's push for a $100 boost in welfare payments came as the Ontario chapter of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business called on the province to cancel the upcoming increase in minimum wage.
Labour Minister Peter Fonseca flatly rejected the idea, and said increasing the wage to $9.50 next month is "one of the cornerstones" of the government's poverty reduction strategy.