Richmond conducts intercultural research on food security and immigration

Food security at forefront of newcomers’ preoccupations. | Photo by Raysonho, Open Grid Scheduler, Grid Engine

Food security at forefront of newcomers’ preoccupations. | Photo by Raysonho, Open Grid Scheduler, Grid Engine

Hunger is a growing issue in Canada. Data from Food Banks Canada indicate that hunger is increasing, affecting low-income people, but also new immigrants who struggle more than others to find employment.

The Richmond Food Security Society (RFSS) has begun a research project that aims to understand the issues facing ethnic and cultural populations and simultaneously build civic engagement and commitment by non-traditional food security players to improve the local situation.

According to the most recent data of Statistics Canada, 8.3 per cent of Canadian households were food insecure in 2012; in British Columbia, the percentage is 8.2. Data from Food Banks Canada’s “HungerCount 2015” report state that every month 850,000 people are assisted by food banks on a national scale. In British Columbia, more than 100,000 people use food banks.

“We think of food security as a place where all people at all times have access to healthy food, produced in a way that is environmentally sustainable, socially just, culturally appropriate and affordable,” says Anita Georgy, executive director of RFSS.

RFSS’s Intercultural Food Security Program is focused on a multicultural study where connections are established with local community leaders. One of the main goals is to understand what their needs are through direct communication. The project is funded by the Vancouver Foundation, and works in partnership with the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Sustainable Food Systems, along with researcher Hannah Wittman.

“Richmond is one of the most multicultural cities in North America. We have one of the highest immigration rates in Canada and that is why we are trying to engage with folks and see what foods are culturally appropriate and affordable for them,” says Georgy.

According to Statistics Canada, the main cause of food insecurity is a lack of money.

“There are people that go into circumstances where they lose their job, the rent increases or they get evicted. All of a sudden these people have to make a trade-off and that trade-off is often food,” says Colin Dring, independent consultant at RFSS.

Eventually, the trade-off turns out to be not only material, but also cultural.

“New immigrants are challenged with finding work. If they can afford to go to a workshop and have some time to learn something, they often choose a course on resume writing or job hunting over learning to cope with foods that are available here, or healthy foods,” says Georgy.

Income security is the primary mechanism affecting food security, but there is also a problem with the high cost of healthy food.

“The immigrants who take part in our research are shocked with prices of fresh food here and how much food they can buy with their dollars compared with back home,” says Dring.

The high cost of fresh foods also brings consequences to the health system. Dring, who is also a former executive director of the program, points out the “Healthy Immigrant Effect.” It refers to the phenomenon that when immigrants arrive to Canada their health is generally very good, but it declines as their years in the country increase.

According to Dring, people often choose quantity over quality and buy foods that are high in calories, fat and sodium because they are much cheaper.

“One of the things we could respond to is reducing the cost of healthier food while simultaneously increasing the cost of unhealthy food,” he says.

“Our program aims to understand what are the structural problems and what are the best collective actions that can help create a fair and credible food system, that makes sure that no one has to experience hunger,” adds Dring.


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