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Apples prices at Massine's Your Independent Grocer on Somerset and Bank. Many struggle to afford healthy groceries and make ends meet. [Photo © Nadiah Sakurai]

Only 30 per cent of Canadians aged 12 or older consume fruits and vegetables five or more times a day, according to data released this month by the Canadian Community Health Survey.

While this statistic does seem daunting, many Canadians face challenges incorporating healthy options into their daily diet. The survey also found that fruit and vegetable consumption varied based on household income. Households with the highest consumption also had the highest income.

Restaurants, corner stores and coffee shops make densely populated areas appear to have accessibility to healthy affordable food options. However, downtown Ottawa, home to much of the federal government, illustrates the challenges of eating healthy in a large city.

In Ottawa’s Centretown neighbourhood, residents only have access to two large grocery stores: the Massine’s Your Independent Grocer at Bank Street and Somerset Street West; and the Sobeys on Lisgar and Metcalfe streets.

“Stores in the downtown core tend to have higher prices,” says Vitalie Nyembwe, co-coordinator of the Ottawa Good Food Box.

“Folks who live in Centretown often end up paying more for their fruit, vegetables and other groceries in general.”

An annual survey released in May by Ottawa Public Health stated that it costs around $863 a month to feed a family of four. That cost has increased by 17.5 per cent since 2009. Centretown also has a higher percentage of households with lower after-tax income. For example, the Ottawa Neighbourhood Study found that 18 per cent of Centretown households have an after-tax income below $20,000. The average for all Ottawa wards in that income range is 9.8 per cent.

This leaves many residents in need of community support to help provide healthy options, such as the Ottawa Good Food Box.

Community support programs

The Ottawa Good Food Box, founded over 20 years ago, delivers fresh produce to different locations in Ottawa. Co-coordinator Nyembwe says that while they usually deliver 500-600 boxes a month. Last year they completed more than 6,000 orders. The not-for-profit organization purchases fruit and vegetables from wholesale farmers and resells them at the same price. The aim is to make it easier for people to afford healthy food.

Programs such as the Ottawa Good Food Box exist because they are addressing a growing need for support in accessing food, says Bryana Katz, co-coordinator of the Ottawa Good Food Box.

Currently Canada does not have a national food policy, although data released by the Canadian Community Health Survey found 12.5 per cent of households face food insecurity in 2012.

Remi-Serge Gratton holding his receipt for his monthly Ottawa Good Food Box. He says this program helps him access healthy food. [Photo © Nadiah Sakurai]

Centretown resident Remi-Serge Gratton has used the Ottawa Good Food Box for the past seven years as a way to include fruits and vegetables in his diet. Gratton is part of the Ontario Disability Support Program, but without the Ottawa Good Food Box he wouldn’t be able to purchase fresh produce.

“Downtown you are limited without a car,” says Gratton.

“Fruits and vegetables are not that cheap – they are the most expensive things at the store,” says Gratton. “The cheapest things aren’t very good for you.”

Katz points out that single people may not be able to take advantage of volume discounts that are sometimes offered in grocery stores.

“They are always paying a premium for being single and having a lower income so they can stock up,” she says, adding that the situation can be particularly challenging for people on social assistance who receive money on the first of the month.

Remi-Serge Gratton filling his bags from the items in the food box. [Photo © Nadiah Sakurai]

It’s a situation Gratton understands all too well.

“By the end of the month I don’t have anything left,” he says. “I have no money left, but now with the Good Food Box, I do.”

Gratton is one of the many facing food insecurity in Ottawa and nation-wide. PROOF, a research team investigating food insecurity across Canada, reports that those who are food insecure often report poor mental, physical and oral health as well as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and depression, which are chronic conditions, connecting food insecurity to higher health-care system costs.    

“Healthy eating is difficult because it is expensive,” says Samantha Ingram from the Ottawa Food Bank. “But unbalanced diets can lead to health issues such as diabetes, obesity and chronic disease.”

With fewer grocery store options and higher prices, Centretown residents may be tempted to turn to the smaller convenience stores in the area.

Fresh, healthy food hard to find

“Corner stores usually carry fatty snacks and high sugar beverages,” says Marketa Graham a Public Health Dietician at Ottawa Public Health.

Access to healthy and affordable food is not a new issue for Canadians. Food banks opened as a temporary resource during an economic decline in the ‘80’s. There are currently more than 800 food banks in Canada, suggesting that the need for affordable and accessible food is not going down. The Ottawa Food Bank was founded in 1984 and is currently the main source for over 100 meal programs throughout the city.

Last year the Ottawa Food Bank increased it’s fresh food options by 47 per cent. This was in response to community members needing fresh produce and having to use the Food Bank as a way of getting it, says Ingram.

“Access to healthy food is a topic we have recently targeted and we are trying to measure – hopefully this will inform policy makers in the future in order to build a healthier Ottawa,” says Kaitlin Carr, data manager and coordinator for the Ottawa Neighbourhood Study, which collects data on communities within Ottawa.

Canada’s agricultural minister did launch consultations for a Food Policy in May, the beginning of developing a Food Policy for Canada.

According to a release from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in June, four key elements were identified: increasing access to affordable food; improving health and food safety; conserving soil, water, and air; and growing more high-quality food.

What is evident is that the need for food assistance is not going away.

“The face of hunger is largely invisible – it is not necessarily who you expect. It can be anyone and everyone. Grocery store prices are going up, gas prices are going up. It is easy for anyone o fall on hard times. Even students who are having a hard time paying for their education. It can happen to anyone,” says the Ottawa Food Bank’s Ingram.

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