Consultation on Social Assistance Food Rates

As part of the PEI Food Security Network and the PEI Working Group for a Livable Income, we took part in a recent community-government consultation on proposed increases to social assistance food rates. We also had the privilege of putting together the meeting report on behalf of the participants.

Here is the link to the report, including written submissions from various community groups. http://peifoodsecurity.files.wordpress.com/2010/12/full-food-rates-consultation.pdf

There’s also a news release summing up the meeting on the Food Security website here.

To read our written submission to the consultation on behalf of the PEI Advisory Council on the Status of Women, you can read it in the report appendix or below:

May 15, 2014

Carol Anne Duffy, Deputy Minister
Department of Community Services and Seniors
Jones Building

Dear Deputy Minister Duffy and colleagues:

Thank you for the opportunity to meet with you to discuss the five-year plan for increasing food rates for Islanders on social assistance.

First, we are pleased that the proposal recognizes food as a basic need and that it uses a solid, nationally accepted standard for assessing the cost of a basic, healthy food basket.

Second, we are pleased that the proposal looks to the future and sets out a plan for five years rather than just one or two years.

Third, we are pleased that the proposal includes indexing based on the CPI for food, so that people in need will receive a social assistance rate for food that continues to have the same buying power if food costs continue to rise as they have been rising in recent years.

All of these are positive steps, and we are pleased they form the basis of the recommendations that are going forward to Executive Council.

We have been asking for several years for poverty reduction planning that includes targets and timelines, and we respect that you have taken these recommendations seriously and invited our feedback on a proposal that includes both targets and timelines. With the feedback we provide today, we hope to be part of a process to influence higher targets and better timelines.

As we discussed in our meeting in person, we have concerns about the proposed food rate increases, related both to the proposed methodology and to the rates themselves. Members of the PEI Advisory Council on the Status of Women strongly support local, province-wide food costing surveys as the most legitimate basis for setting social assistance food rates for PEI. Food costing research should provide enough data to understand not only provincial averages but also to track any differences between regions, particularly differences between rural and urban zones. At the very least, the government of Prince Edward Island needs to support local food costing surveys for long enough to establish beyond doubt the contention that “food costs on PEI would not significantly differ from other Atlantic provinces.” The UPEI 2013 report that you cite was a limited survey, conducted only in one year and only in one county. While the report suggests similarity with other Atlantic provinces, we have no way of knowing if this similarity is stable or anomalous in 2013. There is no way of tracking or explaining differences, such as the $10 difference in food costs you mentioned in our meeting between the 2013 PEI study and the Atlantic average for children’s nutritious food basket. Local, province-wide food costing surveys for at least five years would establish with greater certainty. Our preference is for the participatory action research approach to food costing, with a strong engagement of women as participants.

Members of the PEI Advisory Council on the Status of Women strongly support social assistance rates that meet people’s basic needs. We call on government to fund 100 percent of the research-suggested rate for a nutritious food basket for social assistance recipients. Since we began the Equality Report Card project for assessing government’s progress towards women’s equality goals, a consistent recommendation has been for social assistance rates that meet people’s basic needs, including food. This recommendation continues to be a priority area of assessment for the Council and will again be featured in the 2015 Equality Report Card.

The Canadian healthy food basket represents basic requirements for food to maintain people’s health. We strongly recommend that Islanders on social assistance receive the full cost of a healthy food basket. Choosing a fixed target based, as proposed, on a “percentage of the average research-suggested rate for food” is problematic as a matter of policy and principle. It is not acceptable for the Prince Edward Island government to enshrine in policy that we will provide less than 100 per cent of the cost of a healthy food basket.

Providing a food rate that is less than the basic requirements for nutrition and health may be fiscally sustainable within the social assistance budget, but in our view it is not fiscally sustainable for the Province as a whole. Income is the most important social determinant of health, and poverty costs the health system dearly. Data from the Canadian Centre of Policy Alternatives from 2011 establishes that if poverty were to be eliminated for the just the poorest 20 percent of Islanders, this would result in savings of $40 million per year in public health-care spending.

Members of the PEI Advisory Council on the Status of Women insist that social assistance food rates cannot be looked at in isolation. Food rates are only one component of social assistance, and the food rates need to be understood as part of social assistance rates as a whole. Council members are most particularly concerned that if food rates increase but shelter rates do not, the small gains in food rates will be taken up by the costs of rent. Households’ food budgets have more flexibility than their budgets for rent or mortgage or bills that must be paid on time to prevent immediate loss of essential goods or services. Women who have used the social assistance program tell us they face terrible choices every day between having a safe place to live, being warm, and having enough to eat. As a province, we should not develop systems that impose these terrible decisions on our neighbours, friends, and family members. The social assistance rates as a whole must support people to meet their basic needs in health and with dignity.

Additionally, social assistance food rates need to be understood as one small part of a wider provincial strategy for food security. Most urgently, social assistance rates must play a part in addressing household food insecurity (rather than contributing to it). Prince Edward Island has inexcusably high numbers of children living in households where parents worry about providing adequate nutritious food. The most recent report on Household Food Insecurity in 2012 reported 22% of Island children in food insecure homes. (See http://nutritionalsciences.lamp.utoronto.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Household_Food_Insecurity_in_Canada-2012_ENG.pdf.)

As a province, Prince Edward Island needs new thinking about food security and a cross-departmental vision to promote the principles the PEI Food Security Network espouses: “environmentally appropriate practices for the production and distribution of food; the availability of affordable, healthy, culturally appropriate and personally acceptable food; livable income for producers; the right to food; and PEI self-reliance in food.” (See http://peifoodsecurity.wordpress.com/mission-and-principles/.)

In the past, we have advocated for research into a basic income guarantee (also called guaranteed annual income) as one potentially better way to eliminate poverty. We are part of the Campaign for a Basic Income Guarantee (C-BIG) advocating for a pilot project on basic income for PEI. (See http://cbigpei.wix.com/c-big-pei.)

Finally, the members of the Prince Edward Island Advisory Council on the Status of Women recommend that both the methodology for establishing food rates and the food rates themselves need to be subject to gender and diversity analysis.

The most recent report on household food insecurity in Canada makes clear the need for gender and diversity analysis on food rates and food security. Among the household characteristics associated with a higher likelihood of food insecurity in Canada were these factors related to gender and diversity: “being a female lone parent (34.3% were food insecure), having an income below the Low Income Measure (29.0%), being black (27.8%), being Aboriginal (28.2%), and renting rather than owning one’s home (26.1%).” (See http://nutritionalsciences.lamp.utoronto.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Household_Food_Insecurity_in_Canada-2012_ENG.pdf.)

The most recent statistical profile of Prince Edward Island women, published by the Interministerial Women’s Secretariat in 2010, indicated that at that time, PEI women were more likely than PEI men to be in low income. Additionally, the median income for lone parent families (of which women make up 82 percent of heads of household) was $30,900 compared to the median for all census families in PEI, which was $56,100. (See http://www.gov.pe.ca/photos/original/Women_Stat2010.pdf.) Women in lone-parent families additionally bear full responsibility for purchasing and preparing food in their households.

Even in households with two adults, women continue to bear a great deal of responsibility for purchasing and preparing food. On the whole, women continue to do a higher proportion of Canadian housework, which is generally unpaid and of which food is a part. A very recent OECD report notes that Canada ranks below the world-wide average for balancing life and work, and “Canadian women do 35 hours a week of housework, higher than the 32 for all OECD nations. Men do 20 hours, or less than the 21 across the OECD.” (See http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/top-business-stories/too-little-pay-too-much-housework-how-canadian-women-rank/article18459122/.)

Researchers at the PROOF project (Research to identify policy options to reduce food insecurity) remind us that gender is a factor within households: “Individuals within households do not experience food insecurity in the same way. Quite a bit of research on the intra-household distribution of food has focused on the experiences of mothers, and this work suggests that mothers routinely compromise their food intakes to shield their children from the physical, psychological and social effects of hunger.” (See http://nutritionalsciences.lamp.utoronto.ca/resources/research-publications/lived-experience-of-food-insecurity/.)

The report of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people, James Anaya, points to food costs in rural and remote areas and food insecurity in general as significant issues within indigenous communities and among indigenous people. He examines this issue within a human rights framework. We need to know the extent of the effects for Aboriginal people in Prince Edward Island.

Additionally, definitions of food security consistently include “culturally appropriate” food as an essential part of food security. It is not clear whether culturally appropriate food for culturally diverse families in Prince Edward Island cost more or less than the basic nutritious food basket.

These unanswered questions related to gender and diversity require analysis for possible unequal effects of food costing methodology and social assistance food rates.

Thank you for the opportunity to provide feedback on the proposal for “Food Rate Increases for Social Assistance Clients.” The Equality Report Card process commits our Council to working collaboratively with government to achieve high grades in all areas covered by the report card; women’s economic status, including improving the status women who are clients of social assistance, is a priority area for assessment but also for collaboration. If you have any questions about our recommendations, we welcome them. If there are further actions the Advisory Council can take, please let us know.

Sincerely,

Diane Kays, Chairperson
PEI Advisory Council on the Status of Women

cc: Hon. Valerie Docherty, Minister Responsible for the Status of Women
Michelle Harris Genge, Director, Interministerial Women’s Secretariat
Members of the PEI Advisory Council on the Status of Women

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