Many Nova Scotians cannot afford to eat a basic nutritious diet, but the problem isn’t just in big centres. “It’s pretty clear for me that the need for emergency poverty relief has increased over the last couple of years,” Amanda Workman, a women’s support worker at the Antigonish Women’s Resource Centre (AWRC), said. “The rental rates in Antigonish are extremely high, ridiculous compared to similarly sized communities in other parts of Nova Scotia,” she added. “So people have to choose whether or not they’re going to try to get groceries or put oil in the tank or money on the power bill, because the rent doesn’t move. Food insecurity is a serious issue. It’s really the only place you have in your budget where you can have any wiggle room,” Workman said.
The 2012 Nova Scotia Participatory Food Costing report, assembled by the Nova Scotia Food Security Network and the Food Action Research Centre at Mount Saint Vincent University, released data May 9 indicating families and individuals relying on minimum wage earnings or Income Assistance are at significant risk of experiencing food insecurity.
The average monthly cost of a basic nutritious diet for a household of four with two adults and two children in the Guysborough Antigonish Strait Health Authority was $882.28, the second highest cost in the province. Only Cape Breton was higher, with the cost tabulated at $917.53. That’s higher than the provincial average, at $850.59, which is an increase of nearly $80 per month since 2010.
Those increases, especially in rural areas, cause a ripple effect in the lives of those in poverty, workers at the AWRC said. “We have a food bank here, but there are a lot of restrictions in terms of how you can access that,” Sheena Cameron, poverty reduction coalition coordinator, said. “You can only access it once every three weeks and the food that you can access there, it’s really not healthy. It’s canned goods, preserves. There are no fresh fruits or vegetables; there are no dairy or meat products that are fresh.”She added that on average, 600 households access the Antigonish Community Food Bank every month, with nearly 10,000 clients annually accessing it. “Food banks were initially temporary solutions, and this is a chronic problem,” Cameron said.
“I would say that it is not emergency situations anymore,” Workman added. “People on social assistance are expected to access the food bank, every three weeks, as soon as they can.”
Another compounding factor affecting food security is a high rental rate average in Antigonish. “The cost of housing in Antigonish has a significant effect on people’s ability to buy food. That’s one of the reasons why we have such a busy food bank here,” Katherine Reed, of the Affordable Housing Society, said. “We know from the last census that out of 7,225 households in Antigonish town and county, 395 of them live on annual incomes below $10,000,” she noted.A further 850 live between $10,000 and $20,000 a year, adding up to 17 per cent of the population living on incomes of less than $20,000 per year.
With low income and high rent, many families turn to relief such as the Antigonish Emergency Fuel Fund, which helped 70 families this winter, Reed said. There were even more applications that couldn’t be met by the society’s funds. “The whole economy is built on the hospital, the school system and the university. So there are lots and lots of well-paid jobs there,” Reed noted. “Every aspect of the market in Antigonish caters to that. And then there are these pockets of really awful housing and handfuls of people who have to use the food bank and the fuel fund.” Those who try to escape inflated rental rates by moving to the county are hit by added transportation costs. “If I’m someone living rurally who is on a very limited income, even trying to get to the food bank or to the grocery store, those are added costs,” Workman said. “You want to limit your trips to town to once or twice a month if you can. Even if you had the money to purchase adequate, healthy diet, you need to buy stuff that will keep well, because it has to be there for a long time,” she added.
Food insecurity is not just about feeling a little bit of extra hunger at the end of the day, the study noted. A variety of health and social challenges arise, from poor mental, physical and oral health to diabetes, heart disease, hypertension or depression. Maternal food insecurity can affect pregnancy and birth weights, while children can suffer at school and socially. “There’s poor-bashing that happens,” Workman said. “The reality is, I am one paycheque away. As are a lot of people.” “Each one of us are, if you look at it realistically,” Cameron added. “Any one of us could end up in poverty.”