Each year, the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit, like other health units across Ontario, conducts a Nutritious Food Basket (NFB) survey. The NFB is a survey tool that is a measure of the cost of basic healthy eating across a region. Food costing is used to monitor both affordability and accessibility of foods by relating the cost of the NFB to household incomes.
A representative sample of food stores is selected to reflect the local urban and rural population mix in a health unit area. It is also important to make every effort to include a balance of “regular” and “budget” grocery stores from all the major supermarket chains in the area, and to ensure that stores chosen for the survey come from a balance of lower, middle and higher-level economic areas of the region. Furthermore, no convenience stores or “big box” stores requiring private membership are included in the survey sample. All Ontario public health units use a standardized survey form and survey process developed provincially for this purpose.
The list of NFB foods that are surveyed is not intended as a “prescriptive” list of items that must be eaten by everyone to maintain health. It only represents one example of a “basket” of foods that can be used to determine benchmark figures for the cost of healthy eating in a region.
During a two-week period in May 2016, Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit staff conducted the NFB survey in Simcoe County and the District of Muskoka District separately. Surveyors visited a pre-determined sample of six grocery stores in each area and recorded the price of the same 67 foods in each store.
The foods surveyed include a variety of relatively inexpensive and widely-consumed choices from the four food groups of Canada’s Food Guide that can be used to prepare a whole week’s worth of healthy meals and snacks. They include:
- Vegetables and fruits
- Breads, cereals and other grain-based foods
- Milk and other dairy products
- Meats, fish and poultry
- Canned beans and other meat alternatives
All food prices are entered into the cost averaging spreadsheet provided by the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care to calculate the weekly cost of the NFB. An extra 5% is added to account for coffee, tea and additional food items used as ingredients in meal preparation such as spices, seasonings, condiments, soups and baking supplies. The resulting food basket cost is based on the average cost of each food item across all grocery stores sampled. The food basket excludes food items with little nutritional value such as soft drinks, chips and other processed convenience foods high in sugar, fat and/or salt. Infant formula and baby foods are also not included, and neither are non-food items such as laundry detergent, tooth paste, toilet paper and soap.
Survey results are used to calculate the monthly cost of the NFB for households of different family compositions and income sources. These include:
- a “reference family” of four (a man and a woman each aged 31-50 years; a boy aged 14-18 years, and a girl aged 4-8 years) with income from Ontario Works or minimum wage work;
- a single parent household (a woman aged 31-50 years, a boy aged 14-18 years, and a girl aged 4-8 years) with income from Ontario Works;
- a single man aged 31-50 years with income from Ontario Works or the Ontario Disability Support Program; and
- a woman over 70 years of age with income from Old Age Security/Guaranteed Income Supplement.
In previous years, the cost of the NFB plus apartment rent figures from Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation Market Rental Report are then compared with income to get an indication of whether these income sources are adequate to cover food and rent.
For 2016, due to data suppression of rental figures from the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation Market Rental Report for 2015, rental rates for bachelor and 3+ bedrooms in the District of Muskoka did not present a complete picture for the area. Therefore, data imputation was utilized to assign replacement values for the missing data for District of Muskoka to ensure increased accuracy of the Simcoe Muskoka rent figure estimates for 2015.
It is important to note that it is NOT appropriate to use local NFB results to calculate what individuals and families should be paying for food. NFB figures are an average of food costs from across the whole region and do not represent the situation in any one community. Food costs and other circumstances can be quite different from one community to another in Simcoe Muskoka.
2016 NFB results cannot be compared with survey results from 2008 or earlier because the list of food items surveyed has changed. People’s food buying habits, package sizes and product availability all change over time and after many years of using the same food list a provincial decision was made to update it in May 2009.
All 36 Ontario public health units must submit their completed cost averaging spreadsheets to the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care by July 1st of each year. Health unit results are collated and a provincial average is calculated. The provincial average is a simple average of the weekly cost of the NFB for the reference family of four based on the data submitted by all 36 health units. Each health unit contributes equal weight to the calculated provincial average. The mix of stores and the approach to store selection may differ between health units, making comparisons between health units inappropriate.