OFF TOPIC: When it comes to healthy eating, we can pay now or pay later

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A common piece of advice when it comes to maintaining a healthy diet is to fill your cart from the outside aisles of the grocery store.

That’s where you’ll find the meat department, dairy case and, most importantly, the produce section – all the least-processed offerings in the building.

Of course, there are exceptions. The middle aisles are where you can find many healthy grains as well as canned fruits, vegetables and legumes. The freezer section holds healthy options as well. Flash-frozen produce is as nutritious, we’re told, as the fresh stuff, but has the advantage of keeping far longer.

The main disadvantage of this shopping method, of course, becomes apparent at the checkout.

When the price of a large bag of frozen berries has jumped from about $9 to as much as $14 in some stores, a $4 box of cookies as a sweet treat can look pretty attractive by comparison.

Remember several years ago – pre-pandemic – when we were all freaking out about the price of a head of cauliflower? Now, a single cantaloupe can run between $8 and $9. And let’s not even talk about the price of meat.

It’s impossible to know how much of this inflation can be justified by actual production or transportation costs and how much is simply a case of “because we can.”

Meanwhile, what we as consumers can afford to eat affects more than just our bank balance.

When you weigh the immediate cost of a healthy diet against the long-term costs of an increasingly unhealthy population, it becomes something of a “pay-now-or-pay-later” scenario.

Adults living in food-insecure households report higher rates of chronic disease, according to a report on food poverty released in late May by the BC Center for Disease Control (BCCDC).

Poor eating habits can also lead to anxiety, sleep disturbance, social isolation and depression, it notes.

An apple one day may keep the doctor away, but not if that apple is smothered in refined sugar and wrapped in a pie crust.

Luckily, all that many of us need to do to correct our poor diet is simply cut out the garbage.

That’s not so easy for lower-income families who struggle to put food – any food – on the table.

The report goes on to note that nutritious diets are simply unaffordable for many BC families and individuals living on low-incomes.

If a parent is pinching pennies to get through the month, it’s not a stretch to imagine they’re regularly cutting hot dogs into bowls of boxed mac-and-cheese to keep their kids’ bellies filled. It gets the job done, but it can also set the groundwork for a lifetime of unhealthy eating habits.

Studies cited in the CDC report have found that health care costs are up to 76 per cent higher for food-insecure adults compared to those with sufficient access to healthy food.

Babies, children and youth, meanwhile, may experience an increased risk of anemia, lower nutrient intake, asthma and hospitalization as well as have poorer academic outcomes and social skills.

To me, complaints about the immediate cost of a small rise in the minimum wage seem a bit short-sighted when they’re held up against the potential long-term benefits to all of us who pay healthcare premiums or find themselves in need of medical attention.

If more people could afford to eat better – not that $16.75/hour is enough to achieve that – some of the pressure on the system might actually be relieved.

I’m not sure what the solution is. Maybe the answer is price controls at the point of sale, or better subsidies for producers to help offset costs. I’m sure there are arguments for and against any measure I might suggest here, but I will say that BC’s Nutrition Coupon program, which offers vouchers for farmers’ market purchases, is an excellent start.

Not everyone necessarily wants to eat differently, but those who do should be given every opportunity. We all deserve at least an outside chance at enjoying a healthy diet.

Brenda Anderson is editor of the Peace Arch News.

Column food security inflation