Cutting corners on healthy foods: How do Tofino’s lower wage workers get by with rising living costs?

Cutting corners on healthy foods: How do Tofino’s lower wage workers get by with rising living costs?
Melissa Renwick
A line-up gathers outside Tacofino food truck at lunchtime, in Tofino, on August 24, 2021.

With tourism’s major contribution to Tofino’s economy, the industry itself is “less likely” to offer the region’s living wage, according to a recent report.

While the costs of food, shelter, and transportation increase, tight food budgets are likely as locals cut corners to shoulder expenses.

In early November, Clayoquot Biosphere Trust published their biannual Vital Signs report revealing the region’s living wage of $26.51 per hour is almost 10 dollars over the province’s minimum wage of $16.75.

Roughly 32 per cent of workers in the Clayoquot Sound region have employment in accommodation, food service and retail trade sectors, which are all “likely to earn below the living wage”, reads the report.

“Working families that earn less than a living wage may face tough choices, such as deciding between paying rent or purchasing healthy food,” the report continued.

“A lot of the jobs that are in our area are industry service jobs [and] customer service jobs,” said Jim Chisholm, Tla-o-qui-aht’s tribal administrator. “A lot of them do not pay [living wage] levels.”

“[$26.51] is kind of what somebody deems as a living wage out here, but there’s a great percent of our membership that don’t make [$26.51] an hour,” he said. “They have to cut corners on nutrition, on freshness of food.”

According to the 2022 BCCDC Food Costing report, 15 per cent of British Columbians can’t afford a basic nutritious diet, with the average monthly cost of food for a four-person family in the central region of Vancouver Island at $1,343, based on samples from 13 stores in that area.

Based on the National Nutritious Food Basket, which measures the cost of 61 nutritious items and the amount needed for individuals based on age and sex, the BCCDC report presents data from randomly selected grocery stores across the province. Though the methodology of the report indicates its exclusion of remote, rural, and Indigenous communities when sampling grocery stores across the province, as well as leaving out costs of transportation, fuel, and time.

“After a review of five different household compositions and income scenarios, the report shows many people and households who live on low incomes, especially on income or disability assistance, cannot afford a nutritious diet after paying rent,” reads a BCCDC press release regarding the food costing report.

Individuals with lower incomes as well as those burdened by the high costs of rent, childcare, health or transportation, “may also struggle to afford a healthy diet while meeting their other basic needs”, reads the report.

“For most families, the place where the budget is most flexible is food,” said Jen Cody, a registered dietitian with the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council.

The food budget is where people end up cutting costs because other monthly bills such as rent or heat aren’t flexible, said Cody.

“Those other costs, you can’t change that, necessarily,” she said.

“The only thing that people are able to change, really, is how much they have on hand for food, and then they have to figure out ways to be able to have enough of those foods in their home to feed their family,” added Cody. “It’s really challenging.”

But for Cody, she shared that processed food isn’t necessarily a cheaper alternative to whole foods.

“It sort of depends on where folks want to invest through their time and their energy, and if they have access to some of the resources,” said Cody. “If you look at what the cost of 200 grams worth of potatoes would be, so almost half a pound, and you’re looking at maybe, if they’re expensive potatoes, [a] dollar and a half.”

“I know that a bag of potato chips costs about four or five dollars and you get about 200 grams worth of potato chips out of that bag,” he continued. “If you buy the whole food, potatoes, it costs you $1.50, [and] if you buy potato chips, it’s going to cost you four or five dollars.”

“With the whole foods, you don’t have all those middle steps in terms of processing the food and packaging it and then sending it out,” she added.

Cody noted that it’s especially difficult for individuals on social assistance, echoing the BCCDC report.

“Budgeting or cooking differently, or making alternate choices, sometimes don’t actually make up the difference when those other basic costs are going up,” said Cody.

Given the price of groceries, Cody recommends turning toward a whole food diet rather than paying for processed foods. This includes eating traditional foods when possible, as well as growing your own produce and preserving them by freezing or drying.

“Having those foods on hand makes a really big difference to a budget,” said Cody.

Chisholm shared that Tla-o-qui-aht leadership offers food fish to distribute among the community to help improve nutrition for members.

“We are doing what we can, but unfortunately, the bulk of jobs out here are in the service industry,” said Chisholm.

“I’m not saying we can’t afford it,” said Elmer Frank, elected chief councillor of Tla-o-qui-aht. “I know that we’re going to have to struggle to keep up with the healthy foods.”

“It’s a challenge for our members, certainly, to be able to afford healthy foods on what is usually less than [$26.51] an hour for basic jobs out here,” added Chisholm.

Alexandra Mehl, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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