The per cent of indigenous people living in food insecure homes is startlingly higher than that of the whole province

In Alberta, a number of people are still struggling to afford enough good and healthy food – which causes negative health and psychological effects. However, the ratio is much higher amongst indigenous peoples, and according to some, the number won’t decline without an increase in government funding and a decrease in societal racism.

A survey by Statistics Canada showed that 8.1 per cent of people in Alberta are food insecure. But in contrast, the government organization reported in a different survey that 15.2 per cent of Indigenous Peoples are food insecure.

And that number doesn’t include the peoples living on reserves or settlements, which, according to Alberta’s Regional Chief Craig Makinaw, would most likely raise the number even higher.

The effects of food insecurity

Food insecurity is the financial inability to obtain consistent and reliant nutritious food. This can mean people are forced to skip meals or go hungry, but more commonly in Alberta, this means that the quality of food is compromised.

“It’s made so cheap,” Joe Pimlott, executive director of the Aboriginal Friendship Centre of Calgary said about lower quality and over processed foods. “When you don’t have a lot of money and you are trying to feed your family or yourself on a very limited budget, what do you go to? You go to the junk.”

The problem with many of the foods low income families can afford is that they are often unhealthy. A diet low in nutritional value is almost as bad as going hungry. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons by attributionAnd a diet full of junk can lead to many serious health problems.

“We know that people of food insecure households are more likely to have chronic diseases,” Noreen Willows, associate professor of community nutrition at the University of Alberta said.

Although it’s unclear whether food insecurity is directly causing these chronic diseases, it does make it harder to manage the ones that are diet related because healthy foods can be too expensive.

Food insecurity can also have psychological effects.

Willows said that in the United States, studies are showing that children living in food insecure households are more likely to have suicidal thoughts, depression, and lower academic achievement.

“Just being anxious about not being able to feed yourself can cause a person to have stress or anxiety,” she stated.

A deeply rooted problem

Unfortunately, the cause of this problem amongst indigenous peoples stems all the way back to Canada’s history of colonization and imperialism.

“We can’t be blind to history,” Willows stated. She explained that the cycle of abuse created by residential schools and the fact that reserves have been prohibited from becoming self-determining are some of the root causes for why indigenous peoples are more likely to experience abject poverty.

However, this deep problem manifests itself today in a number of ways. Willows noted that larger families, single parent homes, lower levels of education, and lower paying jobs are some of the current factors causing high levels of vulnerability amongst indigenous peoples.

Unfortunately, the convergence of all of these factors has created a social stigma that perpetuates the problem.

Pimlott said, “There is always going to be racism no matter where you are, but unfortunately here in Canada, and Alberta specifically, there is a large concern for an employer to hire an aboriginal person because of a stigma that they are going to steal, or they are drunks, or they are not going to show up.”

Possible solutions for the complex problem

An increase in government support for those vulnerable to food insecurity would dramatically help with this problem. The health benefits of an adequate diet alone would allow these families to be more active and suffer fewer side effects of a poor diet. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons by attributionA multitude of solutions have been thought through and debated, but together they boil down into two key elements: an increase in funding towards programs that provide food, education and housing, and eliminating racism against indigenous peoples.

According to Makinaw, funding for these programs is not rising with inflation. “There hasn’t been increases in a lot of areas, and if there is an increase it might just be two per cent a year while everything else is rising. And so we are 15 or 20 years behind where we should be, and that has a domino effect on everything.”

He believes that increased funding would help in job creation, and assist education and housing programs.

“Until we get those areas looked at then there won’t be as much opportunity for a lot of people to move ahead,” Makinaw said.

Pimlott agreed that more funding was needed, and suggested that programs to specifically address diet related problems would also be beneficial.

But overall, Pimlott emphasized that racism against indigenous peoples needs to be erased as it puts a “large weight on their shoulders,” and is difficult to break away from. This feeds into the cycle that keeps many indigenous peoples in poverty and enlarges their inability to afford enough good and healthy food.

He believed this could be done by diligently teaching Canadian children about their culture and the importance of having respect for everyone.

“We owe it to our kids and to our grandkids to give them the best life possible. But if we, and you are next, don’t do what we can, then we are wasting our time. We might as well sit and watch TV and eat bon bons,” he said.

Willows also suggested that a provincial wide school lunch program would help children living in food insecure homes and emphasized the importance of paying people a living wage.

Both Health Canada and the federal government were asked to comment for this story, neither chose to comment.

Thumbnail photo taken from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons by attribution

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The editor responsible for this article is Jodi Brak, jbrak@cjournal.ca