‘Stressful cycle’ of food insecurity leads to health problems, Ottawa study suggests – CBC.ca

The author of a local study says food bank users faced worsening mental and physical health struggles due to food insecurity over an 18-month period, and society needs to change how we see food banks.

PhD candidate Anita Rizvi completed the study in 2018 and 2019 alongside the University of Ottawa and the Ottawa Food Bank with people who accessed community food banks monthly. The study included 271 participants who answered questions through a survey at six-month intervals, as well as interviews conducted with some participants.

PhD candidate Anita Rizvi says food banks weren’t established to be used as a long-term solution to food insecurity. (Nick De Luca)

The study looked at whether people were happy with the quality of food bank supply, the health of food bank users, the accommodation of special dietary needs, and how people felt about their experience using the service.

Rizvi said the study found almost two-thirds of respondents faced either moderate or severe food insecurity after going to the food bank for those 18 months. Among that group, 11 agreed to interviews at the end of the study and each reported chronic physical problems — such as osteoporosis, heart disease, diabetes — or mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, or eating disorders.

“Being concerned about food and how are you going to feed your family can cause anxiety and depression just on its own,” Rizvi said.

“It’s a kind of stressful cycle to be on monthly.”

Rizvi said although participants were grateful and appreciative of the food they were getting, people with special dietary needs often didn’t have those needs met.

We’ve created reliance on [the food bank system], an unhealthy reliance.— Karen Secord, Parkdale Food Centre

Some respondents reported improvements in access to fresh fruits and vegetables over the course of the study, but most didn’t report any change or improvement.

“[The Ottawa Food Bank receives] donations and then they have to work with whatever they receive. And so it’s not really their fault and it’s not up to them to meet the needs of all these people,” said Rizvi.

Changing the system

Karen Secord, executive director of the Parkdale Food Centre, says government policy needs to ensure there is a much lower reliance on food banks. (Submitted by Meredith Kerr)

Rizvi said food banks were initially created in the 1980s as a stopgap measure to help struggling families during an economic downturn, but have since become consistently relied upon by people.

She says that needs to change and Karen Secord, executive director of the Parkdale Food Centre, says the social support system programs — like Ontario Works (OW) and the Ontario Disability Support program (ODSP) — need a thorough review to help limit this constant reliance on food banks.

“This whole food banking thing should be cut right down to minimal. So if somebody has an emergency, yes, but this is not an emergency,” she said.

“This is a way people have been coming to food, to our food bank, for like generations.”

The Parkdale Food Centre conducted a survey of its own in February and March of last year, and presented some of the findings during pre-budget consultations with the provincial government.

The survey — completed by 270 people on behalf of their households — found 71 per cent of respondents reported being highly food insecure.

They almost, in a way, have to go to food banks to augment what they have because it’s not enough.— Anita Rizvi, PhD candidate

In the prior year, 51 per cent of respondents said they went without eating because they couldn’t afford enough food.

“We’ve created reliance on [the food bank system], an unhealthy reliance,” Secord said.

Guaranteed basic income would help

Parkdale’s survey found the majority of respondents had an annual income of less than $15,000, meanwhile Rizvi said the majority of participants throughout her study reported monthly incomes under $1,800.

“It seems as though it’s not enough for people to make their ends meet, and it’s concerning because they almost in a way have to go to food banks to augment what they have because it’s not enough,” Rizvi said.

‘For these particular people, things are really, really difficult and challenging already,’ says Rizvi of food bank users. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

With prices having risen more since her study concluded, Rizvi said the situation is likely worse now.

“The recommendation that I’m looking at now is, and it might not be the answer, but guaranteed basic income or supplementing more, giving more than at this time,” said Rizvi.

Secord said an emergency supplement for OW and ODSP is needed, and a guaranteed income system should be looked at to “get out of the food banking business.” 

“We have to do whatever it takes to help governments understand that everyone has certain human rights, and housing and food are connected,” Secord said. 

“It’s often the reason people don’t have food. It’s because they’ve spent it on their housing.”