Dr. Valerie Tarasuk, author of Household Food Insecurity in Canada, says the working poor in P.E.I. need "a living wage'' to end the constant struggle they face to put enough food on their plates.
The majority of people going hungry in P.E.I. are working for a living, albeit a meager one.
Dr. Valerie Tarasuk, the author of Household Insecurity in Canada, says her report found 15.4 per cent of households in Prince Edward Island suffer from some sort of food insecurity, compared to the national average of 12.3 per cent.
The vast majority of that group — roughly 84 per cent — is the province’s working poor, well above the national average of 61 per cent in this category.
“Many households working at low wages manage because they have more than one earner in the family,’’ says Tarasuk, who spoke in Charlottetown this week on the issue of food insecurity.
“It’s devastating for a family if they have only one earner and that earner is forced to earn something akin to minimum wage.’’
There are many here that fit that bill. In 2011, over half (53 per cent) of lone parent, female-led families were food insecure in P.E.I.
“That’s substantially higher than we see across the country,’’ says Tarasuk.
Tarasuk, a professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences and the Dalla Lama School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, describes food insecurity as inadequate or insecure access to food because of financial constraints. She notes an abundance of research suggests when families are really feeling the pinch, adults will often deprive themselves of food as a way to spare their children.
“We see it repeatedly in the national survey data that adults are more likely to bear the brunt of the nutritional compromise,’’ she says.
Still, many children in P.E.I. live in homes with shelves and refrigerators containing at best modest food supplies.
In 2011, more than one out of every four children under 18 was living in food-insecure households in this province leaving P.E.I. with the second worst rate of food insecurity among families with children in the country.
While Tarasuk calls school breakfast programs, food banks and soup kitchens “important initiatives,’’ she is quick to point out they fall well short of fixing the problem of so many Islanders eating an inadequate quantity and quality of food.
“On the outside looking in, you get the impression that if someone goes hungry they can go to a food bank,’’ she says.
“Well, actually, the vast majority of them will never set foot in a food bank and other research that we and others have done would say that even if they do they’re quite likely to still go hungry.’’
Tarasuk says the working poor simply need better pay.
“Wages need to be a living wage for sure,’’ she says.
“Raising minimum wage by a dollar or two an hour...that’s not going to fix this problem because this problem is bigger than a dollar or two. Prince Edward Island needs to start somewhere to tackle this problem of working poor.’’
She adds P.E.I. and other provinces need to reconcile the social assistance programs. She holds up as a model worth following Newfoundland’s dramatic drop in food insecurity levels resulting in part to interventions on social assistance.
“They index benefits to inflation which is absolutely critical,’’ says Tarasuk.
“Food prices are rising. Shelter costs are rising. And to have benefits of any sort, whether it is a tax credit or a social assistance payment that is sitting flat line, is just a recipe for a food insecurity.’’
Here are some findings of a study on household food insecurity in P.E.I.
— 15,900 adults and 8,500 children under the age of 18 in P.E.I. were living in food insecure households in 2011
— Unlike the rest of Canada, food insecurity in P.E.I. is not primarily an urban phenomenon. The situation is no worse and no better in rural versus more urban areas.
— Adults in food insecure households have poorer physical and mental health and higher rates of numerous chronic conditions, including depression, diabetes, and heart disease.
— Being a senior in P.E.I. is highly protective. Households reliant on old-age pensions and retirement investments have one-third the chance of food security of households reliant on employment incomes. The guaranteed annual incomes, drug benefits, and other kinds of assistance available to seniors in P.E.I. appear to be protecting most from food insecurity.