A new study on food security from the University of Montreal finds that despite their critics who see them as ineffective, food banks actually improve their users’ food security as well as their overall health, at least over the short term.
The study targeted Montreal-based organizations offering both “traditional” and “alternative” approaches to assisting people dealing with food insecurity and interviewed 824 participants over a nine-month period to determine the effects these programs were having.
“To our knowledge, this is the first study that selected and recruited new participants from community-based food insecurity interventions for a prospective effectiveness evaluation,” say the study’s authors, led by Federico Roncarolo of the University of Montreal’s Public Health Research Institute.
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Food insecurity is described as the inability to access a sufficient quantity of safe and nutritious food. In Canada, approximately 5 per cent of children and 8 per cent of adults live in food insecure households. Nunavut has the highest rate of food insecurity within the provinces and territories, at 36.7 per cent of the population, and one-parent families represent the most food insecure Canadian demographic at 22.6 per cent, according to 2011-2012 figures. Measures used to determine food security include family income, education and work status.
The study compared traditional food security services comprised mainly of food banks with alternative services such as community kitchens, community gardens and buying groups. These alternative approaches aim at addressing broader issues thought to contribute to food insecurity by supporting activities that empower participants and help them to develop the skills needed to improve their own food security. “The objective of alternative interventions reaches beyond food insecurity problem and involves aspects of social inclusion, social capital and participation in civic activities,” say the study’s authors.
Surprisingly, the results showed that after nine months, those who participated solely in traditional services (food banks) had raised their food security while those who partook of alternative approaches at the same time as, for some, using food banks found their food security status relatively unchanged. As determined in previous studies, the link between improved food security and improved mental and physical health was again established in this study.
The authors suggest one reason why the alternative approaches did not increase food security during the nine months of the study is that building up empowerment and skills of autonomy are long-term endeavors which may not bear fruit until further down the road. The authors further caution that their results do not imply that food banks are the sole answer to the problem of food insecurity in Canada. Rather, they see their research as confirming the utility of food banks, as all things considered, over the short term.
Globally, the World Bank reports that food security is a growing concern, stating, “Already, high food prices are the new normal.” With climate change forecasted to cut crop yields by 25 per cent by 2050, the World Bank urges investment in agriculture and rural development and the encouraging of climate-smart farming techniques.
The study is published in the open access scientific journal PLoS One.