A grocery store display of various coloured apple varieties with a customer and grocery store worker in the background.
A Sobeys grocery store in Lower Sackville, NS, on Dec. 7, 2021. Photo: Yvette d’Entremont

More Nova Scotians are struggling with the rising cost of food, with record numbers turning to Feed Nova Scotia for help.

The non-profit’s executive director Nick Jennery was one of several witnesses who appeared before the provincial public accounts committee on Wednesday to address rising food costs and food inflation in Nova Scotia.

“Thousands of our neighbours, your constituents, were food insecure long before the current rise in food costs, and today’s cost of living has deepened the crisis,” Jennery told committee members.

“The problem isn’t just that food has gone up. It’s that income hasn’t kept pace. Almost twice as many people visited a food bank for the first time in the first quarter of 2022 compared to the same period last year.”

Feed Nova Scotia distributed a record-breaking three million kilograms of food last year, a first in its 38-year history.

“As the urgent need for support continues to rise, so does the expectation that charities like Feed Nova Scotia will continue to meet it. This is simply not sustainable,” Jennery said.

“We need government to tackle the root causes and ensure every Nova Scotian can meet their needs and live a life of dignity and opportunity.”

The hidden hungry

In a recent survey, Feed Nova Scotia found that 80% of food bank clients identified lack of income and the cost of living as major reasons behind their food insecurity. Jennery said Black or Indigenous Nova Scotians are three times more likely to be food insecure.

He also pointed to the increasing number of people turning to Feed Nova Scotia for help.

While the percentage of new clients registering with a food bank is typically around 3% to 5%, Jennery said that number is now 6% to 7%. It jumps to between 8% and 10% in HRM and CBRM.

In addition, Jennery said the organization can no longer rely solely on donations.

“When I started seven years ago, we bought no food. We had enough food to distribute. Now we’re spending north of $1 million in order just to keep up,” Jennery said.

“The greatest impact is the impact that we don’t know. It’s the hidden hungry. It’s the people who feel disconnected, isolated, and are just quietly suffering. So that’s what I’m most concerned about.”

‘Simply a Band-Aid’

Jennery said Nova Scotia is one of the most food insecure provinces in Canada and the millions of kilograms of food his organization distributes are “simply a Band-Aid.” He said increasing inflation must be met with “critical policy levers,” including increased income assistance rates that are regularly indexed to match inflation.

“We should support workers by setting higher minimum wages closer to a living wage to enable low income Nova Scotians to cope with the increasing cost of living,” Jennery said.

“We are in an affordable housing crisis. Low income renters are facing increased risks of poverty, food insecurity, and homelessness. Pass legislation that recognizes housing as a human right and create an equity-based affordable housing strategy with timelines and targets.”

Jennery was joined by Feed Nova Scotia’s director of community connections, Mohammed Al-Hamdani, who pointed to a recent Feed Nova Scotia survey of clients. It found that 85% of survey participants indicated they were spending more than 30% of their income on housing.

“That’s considered unaffordable housing. And if you ask individuals about their prescription use… about 50% of respondents said that they didn’t fill or collect a prescription for their medication or skipped a dose in the last 12 months because they don’t have enough money,” Al Hamdani said.

“And 56% specifically said that they had to sacrifice expenditure on food to pay for prescription drugs.”

‘We know those kids are hungry’

The committee also heard from Margo Riebe-Butt, the executive director of Nourish Nova Scotia, about the critical role of school food programs. She said the variety of foods being offered has decreased, especially fresh foods like fruits and vegetables.

Despite the fact the school year isn’t yet over, many schools have also run out of budgeted funds.

Riebe-Butt said schools cited three main reasons: the significant increase in food costs; the “exponential” growth in the number of students accessing school food programs; and the additional costs of the pandemic model that required more pre-packaged foods.

“Children are still going hungry as programs may run less days per week or end early in the year as budgets expire,” Riebe-Butt said.

Riebe-Butt wants a provincial government committee to begin negotiations with the federal government to make the cost-shared Canada-wide school food program a reality.

“There’s a return on investment for school food programs. For every dollar spent there’s a $3 to $10 return on investment,” Riebe-Butt said. “I wish I had investments that would make that kind of money. You know, this is an investment in our future here in Nova Scotia, and we all need to make it.”

Joy King, principal of Uniacke District School in Mount Uniacke, told the committee that of her 475 students, 90% access the school breakfast program. The school also provides a lunch program and pays for those lunches “for a large majority” of students.

In the last three months, King said their school food budget increased to equal what they paid in 2021 for the entire year.

“I have someone in the community who comes in and does the lunch program. We charge $4.75 for a lunch that includes a drink and a meal,” King said. “Every month we’re paying over $500 in school lunches… just to fund the students who do not have a lunch… There’s food going all day long. We know those kids are hungry.”

‘Agriculture is the epitome of essential’

The executive director of the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture (NSFA) discussed the impact escalating food costs has on farmers.

“Farmers and their loved ones are absolutely impacted by the significant economic and social challenges our province is facing as a result of global events,” Carolyn Van Den Heuvel said.

“Our farmers are incredibly concerned about the cost of food for many reasons, but also because they’re consumers too. They’re consumers as well as producers, and inflation is having a dramatic impact on the cost of production. Costs to produce food is rapidly increasing and profits are not.”

Van Den Heuvel said one long-term solution to ensuring safe, healthy, and affordable food and food security for Nova Scotians involves a strategic and sustainable investment in the province’s agriculture industry.

“After all, agriculture is the epitome of essential,” Van Den Heuvel said.

“We produce food and products that are vital to human life, and as access to food is directly correlated to successful outcomes overseen by various government departments, including health care, education and social services.”

Van Den Heuvel said the NSFA is advocating that a food and agriculture lens be applied to all policies and programs developed by the provincial government.

“The one industry we quite literally cannot live without has to be kept top of mind as decisions are made,” Van Den Heuvel said.

“We need to be part of the solution in growing our province and growing our commodity economy and ensuring food security for our communities.”

‘Things are going to get worse’

The senior director of Dalhousie University’s Agri-food Analytics Lab and professor of food distribution and policy told the committee he didn’t see any evidence the province has set food security as a “real priority.”

Sylvain Charlebois said since 2006, the province lost about 28% of its farms compared to the Canadian average of 16%. He said there’s little to no processing occurring in the province, and he’s advocating for a comprehensive food autonomy strategy that would include consumption of local food produced and processed in Nova Scotia.

“The food inflation rate right now in the province is at 9.8%. It is going to get worse. What we’re facing right now this year is particularly harsh with the conflict in Ukraine and many countries hoarding food right now,” Charlebois said.

“I don’t know if anyone is aware of what’s going on around the world, but things are going to get worse, I’m afraid, and so we need to be ready as a province and make our food economy less vulnerable as much as possible.”

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Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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