Day 5: The Gift of Health

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12 Days

Today’s theme in our 12 Days series is ‘Health’. As we’ve talked about many times before (here, here, and here), we see the effects of poverty on people’s health every day here at food hampers. To give one example, a woman came in for a hamper a few weeks ago, and disclosed she had been diagnosed with cancer. She explained that her doctor recommended she stay away from canned items, as some contain chemicals in the lining of the container, and had also recommended she increase her intake of fruit, vegetables, and whole grain products. This was difficult for her to take in; since she relies on food hamper programs like ours, she often has to subsist on non-perishable items and less produce. Like many people we interact with here, she is caught between wanting to follow her doctor’s orders to get healthy again, and needing to accept what food assistance agencies offered her so she can eat at all. Luckily, we were able to give her some extra produce, but she should not have to take a gamble every time she needs food.

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Many of our program participants have diabetes or other chronic diseases, which are far more common among people living on low income than people in other income brackets, yet it is difficult to afford the foods that may help them deal with their disease.

In a study called ‘Does social class predict diet quality,’ published in 2008 by the American Society for Clinical Nutrition, researchers found that just telling people to eat healthier didn’t have much effect on their diet quality. Think about it: if healthy food (fruit and vegetables, whole grains) costs more per calorie than unhealthy food (processed foods, foods high in refined sugars and white flour), then people on low income need to purchase more unhealthy food to be able to eat at all. In this scenario, just telling people what to eat without any economic action is useless. Confirming this, the study cites recent research done in the US and UK where they found that giving women on low-income grocery vouchers increased their fruit and vegetable intake whereas simply telling them what to eat had no effect.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that though education is a component of preventing chronic disease, it is not enough, especially for people living on low income. Promoting health means doing things like changing people’s economic circumstances so they can afford to eat a healthy diet, changing the infrastructure of the cities we live in to promote active transportation, and making our communities more accessible for people with disabilities so they can live more mobile lives.

The question is how can regular people get involved in these sorts of big changes? If 12 Days is about doing your part, how can you give the gift of health?

One easy way is, even if you recognize that food banks are not necessarily part of the solution to poverty problems in Waterloo Region, to donate healthy foods when you donate to food drives. Think about giving things like natural peanut butter, canned tuna or salmon, whole wheat or rice pasta, brown rice, dried or canned beans, and low sodium soup and pasta sauce. Think about the healthy staples in your house that you would want if you had to get a food hamper. Even if you love Kraft Dinner or Mr. Noodles, think about how you’d feel you had it for dinner every night.

School nutrition programs are also very important ways to help kids get the fuel they need to get the most out of their school day. Did you know that one in five children go to school without any food to sustain them for the whole day? Nutrition for Learning is one program in our area that makes sure kids aren’t hungry at school, which has a direct result on their success in the classroom. As they say on their website, “while hunger and poverty is a major crisis beyond the scope of our organization, we can ensure that the children living in our community go to school well nourished.” Donating time, money, or food to them will make a significant impact in the learning ability of many children in our region.

If you want to go a step beyond donating, think about becoming an advocate. Educate yourself about the social determinants of health and social assistance rates in Ontario. If you find you’re passionate about it, consider writing your Member of Provincial Parliament. For those in Kitchener Centre, John Milloy is the Minister for Community and Social Services, which deals directly with Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program. Don’t have time to write a full letter? Fill out a form to send a pre-written letter here in favour of saving the Community Start-Up and Maintenance Benefit, which help people pay their first and last month rent among other things.

Most importantly, take some time to think about health in a different way than you have before. Think about how income, work environment, whether or not you have a disability, and where you live can affect your physical and mental health and well-being. Taking action to change the root causes of health inequality is a lot harder than educating people about eating fruit and vegetables or being active, but in the end, the change will be much more significant.

Do you have a story about the social determinants of health? Tips for writing letters to politicians? Other ways you’ve thought of to help? Let us know on twitter (#12daysforgood) or in the comments!

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