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Research reveals immigrants' struggle with food access

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Discover how one researcher is helping to understand the relationship between immigrants and food access in the KW region.

Young woman with dark hair and grey scarf picking an apple off a tree

Making healthy eating choices isn’t always easy. But for the immigrants who make up 20% of Canada’s population, it can be a much more serious challenge.

Immigrants in Canada are two times more likely to be food insecure and tend to suffer declining health after they move here. As an immigrant herself, it’s an issue that hit close to home for Paulina Rodriguez, a graduate of the Masters of Urban Planning program at Waterloo.

“As a new immigrant, I immediately noticed a lot of areas where immigrants could be better included,” says Rodriguez. Her study, Exploring experiences of the food environment among immigrants living in the Region of Waterloo, Ontario, was recently published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health.

Rodriguez sees food access as part of a much larger social justice issue. “Food and health are so intertwined,” she says. “Addressing diet-related health inequalities is a moral imperative, as access to high-quality food is a fundamental human right.”

To conduct the study, Rodriguez did qualitative research, interviewing both key informants and new immigrants themselves. She asked immigrants how they access food, whether they conform to the food culture of the KW area, and how they try to balance food security with the costs of everyday life as a new immigrant to Canada.

Rodriguez found that many participants were unable to secure employment as new immigrants and found it challenging to balance the high cost of fresh food with their low incomes. They noted that, compared to less healthy pre-packaged foods, fresh, healthy foods are much more expensive. Many sought alternatives to retail grocery stores, such as pop-up shops, food banks, and community cooking classes.

Immigrants in the study also reported that geographic access to healthy foods and specialty foods was poor. Those who work with immigrants and in the food industry agreed that Farmer’s markets and community gardens are in short supply in the Region. They discussed inconsistencies in land use bylaws that hinder the establishments of alternative food spaces immigrants would prefer.

Finally, Rodriguez discovered that food plays a central role in many immigrants’ cultural identity. Interviewees proudly showed Rodriguez pictures they took for a photovoice exercise, which included images of their traditional cuisine. Despite the challenges, many said they would find ways to adapt rather than conform to Canada’s food culture.

Rodriguez hopes her study inspires change on multiple fronts, including further research. “I would like for students to gain interests in the issues that immigrants face and continue to conduct research to understand this topic,” she says. She also hopes the study will inform frontline workers. “I would like for practitioners and people who work with immigrants directly to be aware of, and take into account issues of food access.” Finally, Rodriguez would like to see more advocacy for affordable housing and community gardens. “At the government level,” she says, “I would like to see better planning legislation that influences access to food for people. One example is the zoning by laws that are often inconsistent and for those planning community services to take a holistic approach to reasons of food insecurity.”

Research like this is still relatively new, but Rodriguez hopes with time and collaborative efforts, the food environment in the Region of Waterloo can shift to improve access to healthy foods and make life more equitable for immigrants.

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