Home Economics 101: Waterloo Edition – What does a healthy diet cost?


It’s no surprise how quickly a grocery bill can add up throughout the month after you buy fresh produce, school snacks, meat, milk, and all the other foods you need. But do you have any idea how much money someone typically spends to feed the average family in Waterloo Region a healthy diet? … Give up? Well keep reading and you’ll find out!

Back in September The Region of Waterloo released their annual “Cost of the Nutritious Food Basket” report, which provides an estimate on the overall cost for a household to eat a healthy diet. The estimates of this report are based on average food prices from various grocery stores throughout the community, based on the dietary recommendations from Canada’s Food Guide for specific ages and genders, the number of people in the household and reflective on eating patterns of the community.

It’s quite a complicated statistic to come up with as you need to factor in 67 food items, spread out throughout each of the four food groups, in specific quantities for the age and gender of each household member. And as the report title suggests it’s only healthy foods; therefore the costs to purchase foods with high levels of fats or sugars, such as cookies or other treats, are not included in the overall cost to feed that household. However once the healthy foods are taken into consideration for the calculation, there is a five percent additional cost added in to cover for additional food items commonly used in cooking or eating meals such as condiments and spices.

According to the results of the report a family of four in this region should be able to eat healthy for $168.89 each week. (A family of four in this case refers to a male aged 31-50 years, female 31-50 years, male 14-18 years, and female 4-8 years.) This figure is up 44 cents from the 2010 figure ($168.45), which comes as a surprise – especially if you remember our discussion on rising food prices earlier this year. (If not, click here.)

If you’ve been reading our blog for a while, you know that there are a significant number of people who are struggling to find enough money for food at various times throughout the year. If we look back to our family of four examples, it’s almost out of reach for many families that access our program to spend $732.00 on food each month. Why? Well if this family is receiving money from social assistance they likely have an income of approximately $2 000 each month after adding in Child Tax and other benefits. (See page 75 in this link here for the full breakdown.)

To spend $732.00 each month means that they’d be dedicating almost 37 percent of their monthly income to food, which would make it even more challenging to pay for other essentials such as rent. How much would rent be? If they were squeezed into a two bedroom apartment they would be paying about $824 on average in rent. If they had a three bedroom apartment they would be paying on average about $923 (Source). That would leave them with about $110 or $90 a week to cover utilities, and other expenses  after paying for food.

To help put things in perspective, a single mother of three children shared with us one day ”My ex-husband was paying child support but has now lost his job; so now it makes it harder for me to make it through the month. Today at lunch we picked through the fridge and freezer for food; whether it went together or not – we just ate it since it’s all we had.”

A single person on Ontario Works would have essentially nothing left to buy food after paying rent. Their income, including tax credits, is around $635 a month if you average it over a year by including tax credits and other refunds, while average rent for a bachelor apartment in this region is around $600. Even by living in some sort of shared accommodations, paying rent and eating is a major challenge.

A single man in his sixties who came to us for help, told us  “I try to budget to have enough…I’m never out…but I scrape by…I’m probably not eating healthy…I enjoy salads and fruits but it’s all increased in price…$10 doesn’t go as far as it use to.” 

There are many examples that we can use to demonstrate how difficult it can be to have enough money for a healthy diet and all your bills each month. However you can create your own example by calculating if you’d have enough money to get through the month, cover all your expenses, and still have enough money for food. How? One of two ways.

If you want to look at your own household expenses, follow this link here to the healthy food budget tool the Region developed. Don’t have a calculator handy? Well, you can use the following examples as a guideline if you want: Single man aged 35: $56.65 a week; Senior woman: $41.74 a week; Single mom, aged 35, with two kids 8 and 14: $127.77; Family of four, two adults and two kids (aged 16 and 7): $168.89 a week.

Have your ideal food budget? OK, now go here to a budget tool developed by Credit Counselling Canada and plug-in all your other expenses as well.  How are you doing? Are you eating healthy and paying your bills? Do you have to make sacrifices?

Want to see what it would be like if you had to use Ontario Works (OW) or Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP)? Try completing The Stop’s “Do the math challenge” by clicking here.

If you haven’t already done this survey, I encourage you to give it a shot and see how far you could get on social assistance. At the end of the survey it’ll show you how much money you’d have left if you were receiving social assistance, Ontario Disability Support program or working full-time at minimum wage. It’s probably not enough to cover the cost of all your bills, personal care needs, and afford a nutritious food basket.

The costs of daily living add up quickly, and people have to make some very difficult financial and personal decisions. “Which child gets new winter boots this year?” or  “I have a job interview coming up, do I buy milk for my children or toothpaste, deodorant and shaving cream?”

This is why hamper programs such as ours have come into existence to help people get through the week and past the occasional or regular financial crisis.

How do you compare to the example? Can you afford the suggested cost to eat a nutritious food basket? Are you overspending? Under spending? Do you have some money or food saving tips that help you keep your weekly budget under control? Please comment and let us know!

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2 Responses to “Home Economics 101: Waterloo Edition – What does a healthy diet cost?”

  1. lucaslu8 Says:

    It’s not easy to eat healthy, that’s why the work that good folks are doing at EFHP are so important!

    • Matt Cooper Says:

      Thank you Lucas! It’s not easy, and while we help all we can, there are always people we can never reach or help enough. That’s why it’s important that decision makers remember the people at the bottom of the income scale and understand their daily struggles when making decisions.

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