Nov. 22, 2023

UCalgary researchers explore dynamics of food insecurity as costs of living continue to rise

Research from Dana Olstad and Inara Lalani shows how socio-economic well-being can affect food security and overall health
Socio-economic well-being and food insecurity
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The surge in the cost of living over the past few years has left a palpable impact on Calgarians, with at least one in three facing challenges in meeting basic needs such as rent and utilities. Faced with these alarming statistics, households now find themselves increasingly confronted by the harsh reality of food insecurity.

In partnership with the United Way of Calgary and Area, the University of Calgary is committed to supporting programs and initiatives that improve socio-economic well-being and help vulnerable people who struggle with food insecurity in our communities.

Dr. Dana Olstad, PhD, an associate professor in the Cumming School of Medicine, along with her undergraduate research assistant Inara Lalani, has studied food insecurity extensively, conducting research on its effects, root causes and strategies for both prevention and mitigation.

Exploring food insecurity

Photo of Dr. Dana Olstad

Dana Olstad

Courtesy Dana Olstad

As a professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences and a registered dietitian, Olstad’s research focuses on how socio-economic inequities, including food insecurity, negatively impact diet quality and health. She says food insecurity is not just about the lack of access to food; it is also a symptom of deeper economic challenges. Families facing food insecurity have exhausted all financial avenues and are forced to divert funds from their food budget to cover other essential expenses.

"When we see food insecurity, it's telling us that families have no other choice left. They have to pay their full rent, so food is the only other place left to cut back," she says.

Photo of Inara Lalani

Inara Lalani

Courtesy Inara Lalani

This research inspired Lalani, a fourth-year health and society student. “I got serious about my research program after taking a class with Dr. Olstad,” says Lalani. “She is an excellent mentor and an excellent researcher who has a very clear vision for how she wants to better her community.”

Lalani received the O’Brien Centre Summer Studentship to fund 16 weeks of research with Olstad as her supervisor. This is her second year receiving such funding. Undergraduate research at UCalgary is one of the many Experiential Learning opportunities available that encourages students to grapple with messy problems, sort through different perspectives, and develop new ways of thinking.

Lalani’s research focused on experiences of stigma and shame for food-insecure people, exploring how it led to psychosocial stress.

“We see that not having enough nutrients is associated with poor health outcomes because your body doesn’t have what it needs to sustain you,” says Lalani. “Even the stress of being food-insecure and struggling to make ends meet has a negative impact on health.”

Programs to help those experiencing food insecurity

Olstad and Lalani applaud programs and services that address the broader financial and economic needs of individuals facing scarcity. Rise Calgary is a charity supported by United Way of Calgary and Area that seeks to assist Calgarians experiencing poverty. It offers a multitude of programs to assist those who face financial instability, including the Good Food Box Program that provides fresh fruit and vegetables at an affordable price.

Rise Calgary takes a coaching approach to best serve the people who come to them, says its executive director, Salimah Kassam, MPP ’13.

“Our services are about having someone in your corner who's willing to work with you and help you navigate the system of resources and the system of getting income, benefits and subsidies into your lives,” says Kassam, adding the aim of the organization’s coaching services is to help increase the socio-economic well-being of vulnerable populations and to set them on a path to move out of poverty.

In 2019, Olstad conducted a study that delved into the impact of the British Columbia Farmers’ Market Nutrition Coupon Program, which provided food-insecure households with weekly coupons to be used at local farmers' markets.

“Our findings showed the program reduced short-term household food insecurity by 79 per cent,” says Olstad. “This is a huge reduction not commonly found in the literature.”

She draws parallels between the program's success and the ethos behind United Way and Rise Calgary's Basic Needs Fund. The fund provides those in crisis with a crucial one-time infusion of money, mirroring the tangible relief experienced by participants in the B.C. program.

Olstad also commends Rise Calgary’s Taxes and Benefits Navigation program that helps Albertans file their personal income tax and access government benefits.

“There’s always a lot of benefits that are tied to filing your income taxes,” says Olstad. “If you don't file your income tax, you won't be eligible for certain benefits. That’s a large amount of money that people are leaving on the table every year.”

Get involved

By making a donation to UCalgary’s 2023 United Way Workplace Campaign, you will be directly supporting community organizations like RISE Calgary and others focused on improving socio-economic well-being in our communities. Students, faculty and staff can give their support by donating before Dec. 15. To donate, log in with your UCalgary email address and password.

UCalgary’s partnership supports United Way in responding to urgent and emerging community issues, seeding innovative ways to tackle society's biggest problems and transforming the systems perpetuating societal disparities. One hundred per cent of your donation goes to United Way’s Community Impact Fund that provides stable funding to more than 120 agencies, ensuring Calgarians can access services and supports when and where they need them. Check out United Way's Impact Calculator to see how far your investment will go in your community.

Dana Olstad is a registered dietitian and associate professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences, an adjunct professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology, and member of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute and O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the Cumming School of Medicine. 

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