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Affordability of Healthy Foods

Photo Credit: monkeyc.net on Flickr

They say an apple a day keeps the doctor away. But what if you can't afford an apple?

If you're in Toronto chances are you can afford an apple (you can get 6 of them for $1.00). But if you're in Calgary it will cost you $5.02.  These are both major cities with significant transportation linkages and there is no rational reason why it should cost 5 times as much to buy apples in Calgary.  There are also huge variances in other products, even in cities that are geographically close to each other. Lean ground beef, for example, costs $13.21 per kg in Ottawa, but only $4.74 per kg in Montreal or $4.99 per kg in Peterborough. Generally, food is more expensive in the North, but that is not always true either, with Whitehorse, Yukon having some of the lowest prices in the country for foods like lean ground beef, peanut butter, and potatoes.  Some communities have extremely high prices for one product and extremely low prices for another. There is no rhyme and reason to explain the significant price variations in healthy foods in all food groups. This finding is further compounded by the relatively low variation in the price of junk food from one Canadian city to another.

All of this information (and more) is from the Heart and Stroke Foundation's Annual Report Card on Health, which included a national poll of the nutritional habits of Canadians and recruited volunteer shoppers across the country to compare the cost of health foods based on Canada's National Nutritious Food Basket and Canada's Food Guide.

The poll found that 47% of Canadians go without fresh fruit, vegetables, dairy products, whole grain products, lean meat or fish because they are too expensive and 68% of Canadians identified price as extremely or very important when choosing what goes into their grocery cart.  What are the consequences for our health if McDonald's is cheaper and easier than putting a nutritious meal on the table? What happens when chips are less expensive than potatoes? When fizzy sugary drinks are more affordable than milk and juice? It means that Canadians compromise their health and it means, in particular, that children in low income families are at a greater risk of developing health problems.

Isn't this ridiculous? Why on earth does the government spend its resources regulating the price of things like alcohol when it has no controls whatsoever in place to ensure that nutritious foods are affordable?

The Heart and Stroke Foundation put together a guide on shopping and cooking on a budget that has some great tips for getting more out of your food budget to go along with its general guide on healthy eating. If you try to buy organic, but find it expensive, you might also be interested in my post Organic on the Cheap! 10 Strategies.

Do you have any great tips for making nutritious eating more affordable? Do you think that the government should regulate the price of basic nutritious foods to ensure low income families can afford them?

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Reader Comments (16)

I'm in the US and have blogged extensively about eating healthy while maintaining a budget. In one experiment, I was able to buy ingredients for 5 healthy, tasty dinners for my family for about 60 dollars.

I do think the government should step in to keep food companies from gouging consumers. Around here, when gas prices went up, food prices did too. But when gas prices went down, the food prices stayed high. It doesn't make any sense and it makes it difficult to make ends meet sometimes.

February 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKayris

If you check out the sale produce, you can get great deals on produce that, while not fresh, is certainly usable. Chop up the veggies for soups and stews, add the fruit to a green smoothie, or make banana bread with some bruised bananas.

February 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCynthia

Although Organic is fab, it's expensive. Buy non-organic and give the fruit a jolly good wash. Go to a greengrocer's rather than a supermarket.

February 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRuth Moss

@Ruth: We have found ways to eat organic for the same amount or less than I would have spent on non-organic produce. I linked to my post about http://www.phdinparenting.com/2008/07/24/organic-on-the-cheap/" rel="nofollow">cheap organics above and it is amazing how affordable it is most of the time if you keep those things in mind.

February 24, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Also, Ruth, food that is grown organically has higher nutrition levels. And, many pesticides do not wash off, even with soap and scrubbing. I find the less expensive organic items and go without the more expensive ones.

February 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMomTFH

I discovered something when we started limiting our meat intake: when you don't buy lots of expensive meat, then you have money for your expensive produce! Unfortunately the good-for-you meats like fish are more expensive.

I also don't spend money on specialty baby/toddler foods like Gerber Graduates or glass jarred baby food. DD eats what we eat.

February 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTopHat

We live in Japan an prices here rose a lot during last year. I found to my big supprise we spend twice as much for food while eating less "expensive" products (like f.ex. cheese, that we simply can`t afford any more) than a year ago.
We buy local, it`s usually cheaper. I try not to buy imported food, although it`s difficult sometimes. We buy at local grocery shops if possible. We buy only this season veggies and fruit, those are the cheapest most of the times! We get meat/fish every other day and only for one meal a day - meat is terribly expensive, I usually make meal for 3 with 250-300gr of beef, and often it lasts for two meals. And I cook a lots of soups ant stews, those are the most efficient food during this cold season.
And I started my own little garden. :)
Maya never ate any jarred "baby food", from the beginning she had what we had and I was cooking for everyone like for her LOL

February 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAlicja

I've seen these statistics and pricing across Canada and it's mind boggling. As a family recently hit with an unexpected lay off, we are currently doing what we can to save money on our groceries. We are still able to do a lot of organic, but have cut back in some areas. Cutting back on meat and making all our food ourselves helps a lot. Packaged and convenience stuff costs a lot of money.

Time to drive to Montreal for my ground beef I guess :-)

February 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterShannon

@Shannon - You might want to try Gatineau first...(a bit closer!)

February 25, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

[...] Canada, apples may cost 5 times more, and lean ground beef 3 times  more than some other parts. In this post about a recent poll, I was amazed to learn that 47% of Canadians go without fresh fruit, [...]

You point out some great info in this blog. I have a friend who is getting her PhD in social epidemiology from Harvard and we were talking about the same thing last month. She was pointing out all the obstacles that low income families face when nutrition is involved. Even how cities are laid out are often not conducive to healthy living. A highway might block an entire community (because they have to walk) from reaching a healthy food market where they could find fresh fruits and veggies. And in turn that community is stuck with whatever bodega is nearby selling whatever crap they have. Hotdogs, chips, soda, etc.

Also, the USDA food pyramid is wrong (http://www.rense.com/general12/wrong.htm). So no wonder US people are mostly obese.

I am not familiar with the obesity rate in Canada, but here in the United States it is soaring! Perhaps our US Dept of Agriculture is partially to blame. In addition to all the troubles the poor come across when trying to lead healthier lives!

October 2, 2009 | Unregistered Commentersmoaksmom

Well, it's not necessarily about the government making prices for foods stay low. In the US, the government pays farms to destroy some of their crops or not use their land to keep prices of produce high. That's one issue. Another issue is that part of the high cost is from transportation. Instead of buying locally, most grocery chains in the US are using produce from all over the country, which costs a lot of money to keep fresh and ship.

Accessibility is a HUGE problem in the US too. One of the classes in my Masters of Public Health program did a survey of some of the various neighborhoods in our state capital. They found that there were no grocery stores anywhere near by...the closest thing were 7-11s (like a glorified gas station). It would take the better part of a day, using multiple busses, to find a grocery store, which really isn't feasible.

There is also a misunderstanding of what constitutes good nutrition. You have sugar cereals touting that they're "fortified with iron and other vitamins." French fries are made from potatoes, so they must be vegetables, right? And ketchup counts too, since it comes from tomatoes.

My mother had a student once who she was trying to teach to read. She showed him a picture of an apple to teach him the letter A, but he couldn't tell her what it was. "He's never seen one of those before," said his grandmother. "We can't afford things like that." It's very sad and frustrating, because we know so many health problems could be avoided with proper nutrition and exercise (which is a whole other issue!).

I'd really like to see more farmers' markets, particularly in urban areas. Then we'd be supporting local farmers, cutting down on pollution (no big semis driving cross-country with veggies), and providing access to reduced cost produce to the low-income.

December 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMZ

[...] own families. Farmers who have to go to the food bank. While at the same time, Canada’s poor cannot afford nutritious food and is being forced to eat donated Kraft Dinner while Kraft rakes in double digit profit margins. [...]

[...] Affordability of Healthy Foods: People should eat better. But is it easy to do so? What happens when junk is so much more affordable than real food. [...]

[...] Why isn’t anyone doing anything about the fact that junk food is cheaper than real food? [...]

February 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCanadian women: We’re fa

[...] tow, parents are understandably less likely to make the effort. When nutritious food is available, the prices are often high, especially outside of the growing season in a country like [...]

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