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Ontario Should Set Sights On Livable Wages As Food Costs Rise

The average family will pay $411 more for groceries next year.

The holiday season is upon us, and Canadians across the country have food on their minds. While some are planning festive meals with friends and family, many — far too many — are wondering how they'll afford the food they need this month. And the release of Canada's Food Price Report last week only brought worse news for families that are trying to make ends meet on low incomes.

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The new University of Guelph report predicts that the average Canadian family will pay $411 more for food in 2019 than they did this year. The price of produce will see the biggest increase, jumping by as much as six per cent. A $411 grocery bill hike, spread out over a whole year, may not seem like a lot. It adds up to a little more than $34 per month. But for families on fixed budgets, particularly those who depend on minimum-wage jobs or social assistance, a $411 increase will mean a lot less healthy food on the table, and a lot more anxiety about where their next meal will come from.

According to 2018 Ottawa Health Unit data, a family of four on Ontario Works had $1,014 a month left to spend after rent. The cost of a nutritious food basket is $868, leaving only $146 to cover all other expenses, including transportation, clothing and utilities. Tacking $34 onto that monthly food bill makes an inelastic budget even tighter: no amount of creative budgeting can make that pittance last until the end of the month. So food is often the first thing to go. Parents skip meals so their kids can eat. Expensive vegetables are replaced by cheaper, processed foods that are high in sugar and salt.

The current Progressive Conservative government in Ontario is taking us in the wrong direction.

The impossible choices facing low-income Canadians have severe and lasting impacts on their health. The evidence is clear: Canadians who struggle with poverty and food insecurity are disproportionately affected by diet-related diseases and chronic conditions. The cost to our already overburdened health care system is significant: Type 2 diabetes alone costs $12 billion each year. The effect on people is tragic — lives cut short and potential curtailed. And it is preventable: we must find the political will to ensure Canadians have enough money in their pockets to afford the food that's necessary for their health.

Unfortunately, the current Progressive Conservative government in Ontario is taking us in the wrong direction by rolling back protections and policies that could reduce food insecurity. In the last six months, they've halved a proposed increase to social assistance rates from three per cent to 1.5 per cent, cancelled an increase to the minimum wage that would have brought it from $14 to $15 an hour, and deep-sixed the Basic Income pilot. Add to this the rollback in worker protections and it's even more difficult for struggling Ontarians to keep up with the cost of living.

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When food costs spike upwards, fuelled by climate change and other factors, our conversations tend to turn to what we can do to bring them back down: soak your beans, cook more at home. But we already pay so little for our food as a society, and externalize the true costs of producing food in a way that has lasting negative impacts on our health and our environment. It's a losing game.

The conversation we need to have instead is about how to ensure our neighbours aren't so poor they struggle to live with dignity. It's also about how inured we've become to the poverty and deprivation experienced by so many of our fellow citizens, and the role we all have to play in building a healthier and more equitable country.

The only way to ensure Canadians are able to weather the storm is to ensure that people can earn a decent income — including the thousands of low-wage workers who produce, prepare and sell our food. We need to pressure employers to provide good jobs and livable wages. We need to hold governments to account and make them hear that affordable housing, worker protections and food security are our priority. We need to vote for leaders who support progressive policies and see that we are stronger when everyone can afford to live a full and healthy and productive life.

Canada, you've got one job: make your voice heard. Are you up to the task?

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