Editorial: Too many can’t afford to buy healthy food

It has been known for some time that certain foods are linked to ailments such as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and a variety of cancers. Red meat, processed meat and products high in saturated fat such as cream top the list.

With this in mind, Health Canada has issued a new Food Guide, which places more emphasis on fruit, vegetables and whole grains.

article continues below

The problem is that half of the working-class families in our country say they either cannot afford such a diet or would find it a struggle. And their concern is understandable.

The price of vegetables is forecast to increase by six per cent in 2019. Meat, meanwhile, is predicted to cost three per cent less, the result, perhaps, of discouraging its consumption.

But the broader question is why so many working-class families, in one of the world’s wealthiest countries, cannot afford a healthy diet.

By most measures, Canada is about the 10th-richest nation. How can it be that such a basic necessity lies beyond millions of our citizens?

One answer is that, in real terms, average family incomes in Canada have declined over the past 35 years. In 1980, the median family income was $55,000. By 2015, it had fallen to $48,000 (these are constant dollars).

We don’t often realize this, because unadjusted incomes have indeed grown. But take out the rising cost of living, and working-class families are worse off, not better.

A common explanation is that while Canada is an affluent country, much of the wealth is concentrated at the high end of the income scale. There is truth in that.

The top fifth of the population takes home six times as much as the lowest fifth. Yet income distribution in Canada is no different than most Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, and better than some.

The plight of the working class becomes still more difficult to explain when one considers that labour productivity in Canada has grown 50 per cent over the past few decades.

Part of the problem is that while our economy continues to expand, much of the wealth production has occurred in high-tech fields. Jobs in this sector require a university degree or equivalent, yet only half of Canada’s workforce have those qualifications.

By contrast, manufacturing, which was once a mainstay of blue-collar employment, is bleeding jobs, due both to increased automation and the flight of corporations to cheaper locations overseas. Neither of these trends is forecast to reverse; they are expected to accelerate.

To combat the decline in working-class wages, the idea has been floated of a guaranteed minimum income. In 2017, the Liberal government in Ontario experimented with this briefly.

Under the program, individuals could receive up to $17,000 a year, and couples $24,000, minus half of any earned income. The project was cancelled a year later when the Conservatives, led by Doug Ford, took office.

Yet while a scheme like this would go some way to reversing working-class losses, significant difficulties stand in the way. The Parliamentary Budget Officer has estimated that a national program based on the Ontario model would cost an additional $43 billion. It is unlikely costs on that scale could be managed without a hefty tax increase.

And there is a deeper issue at stake. People need work for more reasons than earning a living.

Numerous studies have shown that employment creates personal satisfaction, a sense of self-worth and the social benefits that come with having workmates. As a species, we need to be busy.

These requirements will not be satisfied by a government-subsidized income, no matter how well planned it might be.

A federal election is due in six months. Tackling this challenge should be one of the top priorities for whichever party wins.

Read Related Topics

© Copyright Times Colonist