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Food insecurity among Indigenous kids is a 'public health crisis,' doctors say

Family physician Dr. Rebekah Eatmon sees parents in tears, frustrated that they can't provide enough healthy food for their children.

"I've never met an Indigenous parent that doesn't want to do the best for their kids," said Eatmon, who works at an Indigenous clinic in Vancouver and in two remote First Nations in B.C.

Rising food prices have put "an even bigger burden on families who were struggling before," said the doctor, who is a member of Lax Kw'alaams First Nation on her father's side and Metis on her mother's side.

As families across Canada grapple with the increasing cost of groceries, a new study says First Nations, Metis and Inuit children and youth have been disproportionately affected by food insecurity for years -- to the point that it's an "urgent public health crisis."

"The seriousness of this in Indigenous communities is unlike any other population," said Dr. Anna Banerji, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Toronto and lead author of the study, which was recently published in the journal PLOS Global Public Health.

Banerji and her co-authors looked at dozens of peer-reviewed research studies, as well as reports from First Nations, Metis and Inuit organizations, to determine the extent of food insecurity among Indigenous children in Canada.

"Moderate" food insecurity is defined by Statistics Canada as a "compromise in quality and/or quantity of food consumed."

"Severe" food insecurity is defined as "reduced food intake and disrupted eating patterns."

The data show a disproportionately higher rate of moderate to severe food insecurity among Indigenous people living both on and off reserve, the study said, although people living in rural and remote Indigenous communities in the North were at especially high risk, partly because of extremely high food costs.

"(In) some of these Indigenous communities, it is to the point where some children don't have food to eat all day long," said Banerji.

One study of Inuit children in Nunavik, the northernmost region of Quebec, found that children from food-insecure homes were an average of two centimetres shorter than those from food-secure homes.

"It's incomprehensible that in a country as rich as Canada that we have kids who are stunted and children who are starving," she said.

Moderate to severe food insecurity can lead to malnutrition, which affects the "physical, intellectual, emotional (and) social development of the child," said Dr. Veronique Pelletier, a pediatrician at CHU Sainte-Justine in Montreal and a co-author of the study.

Malnutrition can be caused not only by a lack of food, but by a lack of high-quality, nutritious food, she said.

For example, many Indigenous families who live in remote areas can't get healthy food, including meats, fish, fruits and vegetables, because they are perishable and won't last long after being transported long distances, the study said.

Those types of food are also out of reach for many Indigenous people because they can't afford to buy them.

That means that many Indigenous children have obesity but are nutrient-starved, because their diets consist largely of more affordable carbohydrate or fat-heavy food, the study said.

Eatmon, who was not involved in the study, said its findings ring true.

"Families know what the best things are for their kids. I've never chatted with a family that wants to give their kids Eggos over blueberries," she said.

"But the reality is the blueberries will spoil in a couple days and the Eggos will stay for months inside their freezer."

The long-lasting effects of colonization are driving factors behind much of the food insecurity Indigenous people face, the study said, because they disrupted sources of healthy food such as traditional hunting, fishing and gathering.

"Over thousands of years, Indigenous populations have adapted to a diet suitable to their environment," the study said. That diet included animals and plants harvested locally.

"Some cultural sharing practices involving feasts and ceremonies were outlawed, resulting in loss of intergenerational knowledge of traditional food procurement and preparation," it said.

In addition, trauma from residential schools and discrimination has fuelled "underemployment and poverty for some individuals and communities" -- which in turn leads to a lack of ability to afford nutritious food.

Combating food insecurity requires Indigenous-led solutions that are specific to each community's needs, said Deyowidron't Teri Morrow, a dietitian at Six Nations of the Grand River in southwestern Ontario.

Morrow, who was not involved in the study, pointed to food shortages in grocery stores during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown as an example of how her First Nation was able to create their own food security.

"We could still go out and hunt and fish," she said, adding that they also picked wild leeks and fiddleheads.

"We were shipping them within the community here because people couldn't get to the grocery store," said Morrow, who also chairs the Dietitians of Canada Indigenous Nutrition Knowledge Information Network.

Programs that re-establish traditional foods within Indigenous communities are one way of fighting food insecurity, Banerji said. Other examples of success stories include community greenhouses and community freezers.

Banerji and her co-authors are calling for more government support for these types of initiatives, as well as school-based nutrition programs in all Indigenous communities to ensure kids get at least one healthy meal a day.

"Indigenous Peoples must have access to healthy and affordable food and our government is taking the steps necessary to close long-standing socioeconomic gaps," said an emailed response from Zeus Eden, press secretary to Minister of Indigenous Services Patty Hajdu, on Thursday.

"We know that affordability is a top concern for all Canadians, especially those in remote, rural and Indigenous communities who face a higher cost of living," Eden said.

He pointed to recently announced funding of $120 million for 24 regional Indigenous governments "to further support traditional hunting, harvesting, and food sharing activities," as well as income assistance of "approximately $300 per month to address urgent financial needs" for more than 100,000 people in First Nations communities.

The federal government is also working on developing a national school food policy "over the next few years," the statement said.

"We will continue to work with all levels of government and across departments to address food insecurity, reduce poverty, and promote economic reconciliation," it said.

 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 28, 2023.

Canadian Press health coverage receives support through a partnership with the Canadian Medical Association. 

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