Income-related food security is an important public health issue in Canada and is a key social determinant of health, according to Health Canada.
But a recent paper published by Dr. Atanu Sarkar reveals that single parents and seniors living alone have serious challenges when it comes to food security. Many, related to income, physical health and loneliness.
Women bear the brunt
With questions adapted from a Canadian Community Health Survey developed by Health Canada, Dr. Sarkar along with Dr. Martha Traverso-Yepez and Veeresh Gadag, from the Faculty of Medicine, asked participants about nutritional awareness, household meal practices, challenges and coping strategies.
They interviewed 50 single parents and 48 seniors in St. John’s, N.L.; a large portion of whom were female (in Canada, 80 per cent of lone-parents and 70 per cent of seniors living alone are women).
A shocking 96 per cent of respondents were “very much” or “somewhat” concerned about the quality, quantity and nutritional value of what they eat, and two out of five described their eating habits as “fair” or “poor.”
Single parent challenges
According to the study, single parents are more constrained by money and time. In fact, 86 per cent of them had a limited budget for groceries and most check flyers for sales while one-fourth did not have sufficient money or a high enough credit limit.
Sixty per cent of single parents had to cut out some foods due to budgeting, and more than half of them used a food bank to supplement their needs. In addition, many also bought food requiring no preparation or regularly ordered takeout.
Research has shown that food-insecure households tend to buy cheaper, high-calorie, low nutrient foods out of necessity because of competing priorities such as rent, heat and medication.
Some participants were especially vocal about the need for higher incomes and full-time employment as the nature of their jobs meant limited attention to the quality of their children’s diets and to accessing information about cheap, yet healthy, diet alternatives.
On a positive note, the majority of respondents were interested in community-based solutions, such as having a vegetable garden and developing skills to prepare fast, easy and low-cost recipes.
The senior picture
In NL, about one in seven individuals are 65 or older, and by 2026, it’s anticipated they’ll make up more than one fourth of the total population.
According to Dr. Sarkar’s study, senior women, the majority of them living alone, are constrained by mental and physical health, such as loneliness and mobility issues. In addition to poverty, physical disabilities and loneliness limit the use of public transportation to grocery stores and affect their ability and motivation to prepare balanced, homemade meals.
Some seniors living alone indicated that they couldn’t manage the extra time and energy needed to cook for themselves. Around one-third of them considered the high cost of nutritious foods and a limited budget as the major barriers to following any food guide.
Seventeen per cent of the seniors surveyed regularly used food banks to supplement their needs.
According to Food Banks Canada, this province has the highest percentage of its population using food banks at five per cent; 36 per cent are single parents and seven per cent are seniors.
“Doctors, nurses and social workers should be more aware of the problem and pay attention to the food security issues faced by single parents and seniors. A simple, prescriptive approach will not work.” – Dr. Atanu Sarkar
Dr. Sarkar and his colleagues conclude that governments need a multi-pronged approach to fixing food insecurity.
“There can be skill development programs so single women can get better jobs and thus get more time to care for their own health and children’s. Seniors need different types of social supports, such as more interactive community development, peer interactions and skills on quick, easy to cook healthy meals,” he said.
Dr. Sarkar pointed out that the study was conducted before the pandemic and that the situation has become dire, making these population sub-groups more vulnerable. “It is important to explore their urgent need since many single parents lost jobs. For seniors, the situation is perhaps worse, because now they cannot meet their peers due to higher risk of contracting infection. They remain confined to their homes and their food security perhaps worsened further.”
“This problem has to be taken very seriously,” Dr. Sarkar added. “For health officials and researchers like us, we have to understand the problem from multiple angles, including from the perspective of social accountability,” Dr. Sarkar concluded. “Doctors, nurses and social workers should be more aware of the problem and pay attention to the food security issues faced by single parents and seniors. A simple, prescriptive approach will not work.”
Although the first such study for the City of St. John’s, Dr. Sarkar admits, there were some limitations in the study: A small sample size and the fact that they could not compare their sample to the general population.
In addition, because they relied on support from the Single Parents Association and the Seniors Resource Centre for participants, it’s possible that the most disadvantaged among single mothers and seniors, who use their services regularly, were surveyed, while relatively well-off households were left out. As well, Indigenous and immigrant communities, were not included.