The poorest Canadians spend more than twice the national average of their income on food

Sylvain CharleboisThere are various metrics to assess a nation’s wealth, and one telling indicator is the proportion of disposable income that its citizens spend on food. While the Trudeau government has expressed a commitment to aid the impoverished and disadvantaged, new data from Statistics Canada reveals that, since the beginning of the pandemic four years ago, their plight has deteriorated.

A vivid illustration of Canada’s economic disparities is evident in the kitchen pantries across the nation, with the divide deepening over time. A longitudinal analysis comparing household disposable income to the percentage of income spent on food highlights an alarming trend of growing disparity.

A troubling trend emerges for the 20 percent of households with the lowest incomes in Canada. In 2001, this group spent 21.2 percent of their disposable income on food purchases, excluding dining out. This percentage peaked at 23.9 percent in 2005, dipped to 21.3 percent in 2012, and then rose again to 23.5 percent in 2016. Although the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) initially provided some relief during the pandemic, it was short-lived. By 2020, this figure had dropped to 19.1 percent, only to climb back up to 21.3 percent by 2023, with no sign of declining anytime soon.

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In stark contrast, the top 20 percent of households with the highest incomes in Canada show a dramatically different economic trajectory. While their disposable income has soared, the percentage spent on food remains consistently low. In 2023, this group allocated only five percent of their income to food – a fraction of what the 20 percent of households with the lowest incomes spend.

This contrast is even more stark against the national average of 9.2 percent, underscoring a grim reality: the poorest Canadians spend more than twice the national average of their income on food. It’s not solely a matter of food inflation: stagnant wages also play a crucial role, as evidenced by the growing reliance on food banks.

These statistics are more than just numbers; they represent a clarion call for a revaluation of our national policies on food affordability. They challenge the effectiveness of current social programs and cast doubts on the fairness of our tax system, indicating a systemic problem where the economically disadvantaged devote an excessive portion of their limited resources to meeting basic needs such as food. Despite years of expansive government spending under the Trudeau government, the trend of food affordability continues to move in the wrong direction.

Policy interventions are urgently needed to address the root causes of this inequality. Revisiting the concept of a guaranteed minimum income could help ensure that incomes rise in line with the increasing cost of living. While the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) provided valuable insights from a policy perspective, it also highlighted the limited financial flexibility of households, with food emerging as a primary expense.

Subsidies and tax incentives must be restructured to effectively aid those most in need rather than implementing broad measures that often miss the mark. At a broader level, these disparities prompt us to re-assess the effectiveness of our country’s food programs and underscores the urgent necessity to develop a comprehensive national food policy that prioritizes affordability and access for all Canadians. Regrettably, recent federal budgets have fallen short of addressing these critical issues.

The data from Statistics Canada reveal a tale of two Canadas: one where food security remains accessible and another where it is a constant struggle. This division highlights systemic issues within our society and demands a multifaceted approach to ensure food security for every Canadian.

While the government plays a pivotal role, relying solely on national programs is not the only solution. Many NGOs and community groups, which perform miracles daily, could, with enhanced support, make a significant impact.

As we move forward, it’s crucial for Canada to forge a new path – one that measures the prosperity of its food economy not only by GDP but also by the well-being and food security of all Canadians.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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