Choosing between food and the internet
While the link between food and the internet is positive for many people and organizations across the country, for some Canadians the connection isn’t as encouraging.
In 2016, ACORN Canada released the results of a 2015 survey of 232 low-to-middle-income individuals from across Canada in a report called Internet for all: Internet use and accessibility for low-income Canadians6. In it, 60 per cent of respondents indicated that the price of high-speed internet was extremely high, they couldn’t afford it and because they need it, they have to take money out of their budget for other things. Of those “other things”, 71 per cent indicated food.
“Often, the internet is the highest household expense, outside of rent and hydro,” says Alejandra Ruiz-Vargas, an ACORN Canada leader and member. “Yet for a service that is so essential, this seems really unfair.”
ACORN Canada member Kelly Lalande shared her firsthand experience with this difficult choice. “Before getting a $10 a month internet package with the Toronto Community Housing Corporation in 2016, it was very hard to afford internet. It affected my budgeting and meant I took money from elsewhere. At the time, I had to give up a lot. I’m on medication for epilepsy and I’ve had to give up money for medication. I’ve had to give up food, sometimes my rent money. Some of my bills didn’t get paid because I wanted to have the internet.”
Writer and communications consultant Natalie Campbell of Campbell Communications in Hay River, Northwest Territories commented on the double impact of high-priced internet and high-priced food in northern communities. “The high cost of healthy food is already a problem in most communities in the Northwest Territories, particularly those that are remote, and consequently obesity rates in children are alarming,” says Campbell. “Having even less money to access healthy food because of expensive internet, in addition to other expensive life necessities, definitely contributes to food insecurity.”
6Internet for All: Internet Use and Accessibility for Low-Income Canadians, ACORN Canada, 2016
Access to food and nutrition information online
When looking at the internet’s connection to food, another consideration is how internet access connects users to knowledge about food and nutrition. ACORN Canada’s 2018 report Access to the Digital Economy and Health7 explored this issue through two focus groups with its members in Surrey and Burnaby, B.C.
The report features the following quote from one focus-group participant, “I was really sick a few years ago and I didn’t really know if I was going to make it, but I’m alive today. When I was sick and I was home, I kept forgetting what kinds of foods I was supposed to be eating. So for me the internet was really essential because I would go online and be like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m supposed to be eating this’ and ‘Oh yeah, I’m supposed to be doing that’.”
The internet can also help users save money on food. One focus group respondent said, “I actually go online a lot to look at all the flyers to see what’s on sale, because I have a small budget so I look if the apples are on sale…I use my disability bus pass and go out to all the stores. I will buy one thing over here and go all the way over there to get another thing. Then I’ll walk back to get another thing. Then I will look back when I get home and say it says, ‘You’ve saved $67’. Holy smokes, I’m rich! That’s another $67 I can use in two more weeks.’
On that issue, Ruiz-Vargas notes the catch-22. “If you can’t afford the internet, you can’t do that.”
7Access to the Digital Economy and Health, ACORN Institute Canada, 2018
In June 2018, the Canadian government announced the Connecting Families program, which includes a $10 per month internet service for some low-income families in Canada as well as the distribution of devices to some of those homes. According to the program website, “Despite the importance of high-speed internet, almost half of Canadian households with an annual income of $30,000 or less do not have access.” This program will positively impact families who qualify for it across Canada.
“Broadly speaking, it’s a great thing that there is a program to help low-income families get affordable internet access,” says Shelley Robinson, executive director of National Capital Freenet, a not-for-profit internet service provider (ISP) in Ottawa. “But I worry about people who desperately need the internet and don’t meet the criteria. That’s seniors and single people who are really struggling. They aren’t captured by this program.”
Natalie Campbell shared her concern that the program may not curb the effects of expensive internet in northern communities. “If applicable to residents of rural and remote northern communities, where internet is among the most expensive in Canada, the federal Connecting Families initiative could go a long way to help low-income families access healthy food if this is what they choose to prioritize. However, this would be contingent on which service package is eligible for the subsidy. Consider that in Uluhaktok, the highest home internet plan gets you 45 GB of data at five Mbps down and one Mbps up at a whopping $229.95 per month. Without an unlimited data plan, overages add up quickly and people may choose to prioritize spending more money on more internet rather than healthier food choices.”
Connecting Families may be a solution for some Canadians who currently adjust their food budget to afford internet and this is a good thing. Unfortunately, without support for those who are ineligible, the struggle to pay for internet continues, forcing many to choose between food and the internet.
A better online Canada includes a full pantry
While Canada is moving in the right direction in helping Canadians connect, Canadians still pay a lot for internet. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a high-end internet package on a fixed broadband connection (defined as having at least 200 GB/month of data allowance at speeds of at least 25 Mbp) in Canada is $53.26 while the OECD average is $34.17. These high prices make the choice between food and the internet all the more necessary for some.
CIRA’s overarching strategic goal is to build a better online Canada, and this includes increasing access to this vital resource for all Canadians so they can benefit from Canada’s digital economy.
The gap between us: Perspectives on building a better online Canada, a report CIRA released in June 2018, provided insight on Canada’s digital divide through the eyes of organizations across the country working on the frontlines of Canada’s internet. The report shared the challenges these organizations face, what Canada is getting right and recommendations to improve Canada’s internet. One recommendation was to develop a national affordability program that considers both price and quality.
National Capital FreeNet’s executive director Shelley Robinson commented for the report that, “Some low-income folks scrimp on food so they can afford phones and home internet access. Many people think everyone has internet and it really is not the case. Then governments start digitizing their services, and it becomes more onerous for people to apply. Targeted programs like those for families and community housing tenants are great, but we need to ensure everyone has access they can afford.”
CIRA envisions a Canada where nobody needs to choose between buying groceries and paying their internet bill. We see the internet as an essential component of day-to-day life, as Canadians perform important tasks like accessing food and nutrition information or planning their online food orders.