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The Hospital for Sick Children has recently implemented the new Ryerson-led screening study, with more health centres expected to follow
A healthy diet is expensive. With food insecurity being especially prevalent among diabetics, according to research from Ryerson University, not having access to healthy food can be a matter of life or death, literally.
Food insecurity is not having access to enough food, due to financial constraints.
Enza Gucciardi, a Ryerson nutrition professor, and her research team have developed a new screening tool that will help health-care providers identify and tackle cases of food insecurity among diabetics. This tool also helps create affordable, individual meal plan options for people with diabetes who are food insecure. It also includes contact information for local community kitchens and food banks.
If a health-care provider recommends a diabetes patient eats brown rice and meat, but they can’t afford those foods, the meal plan is meaningless, said Gucciardi. An alternative meal plan may include more canned or frozen foods, legumes and cheaper cuts of meat — but diabetic patients might not be aware of those options.
It’s a sensitive subject that must be approached with care, Gucciardi said.
“It’s embarrassing saying, ‘I don’t have enough food. I skip meals.’”
Since patients may be uncomfortable opening up about food insecurity at first, the screening recommends care providers first develop rapport with them and ask questions in followup appointments.
“It doesn’t just happen in one session,” said clinical dietician Vanita Pais, who has been implementing the screening at The Hospital for Sick Children. You have to first develop a relationship of trust with the patient, she said.
This becomes even more of an issue for people who are food insecure and have children with diabetes. Parents can be afraid to talk to caregivers about not being able to feed their child properly and risk social services taking their child away.
Other than directly helping develop affordable meal plans, the new screening also aims to destigmatize food insecurity in general, said Gucciardi. Hospitals and clinics are putting up posters about how common food insecurity is outside their facilities.
The challenge the new screening faces is figuring out who will have the time to conduct it with patients; whether it’s the nurse, the dietician or someone else. Not a lot of people have the extra time to screen patients for food insecurity, said Gucciardi. There also aren’t funds in the health-care system to create new positions that will be responsible for the screening and for connecting patients with community resources, she said.
Gucciardi said that, unfortunately, she and her team are simply mitigating a big need and that political action is required to solve this food insecurity crisis. Yet the Ontario government cancelled a basic income pilot project in July 2018, which would have helped tackle the food insecurity problem in Ontario.
There are taxes on unhealthy foods and pop drinks, said Gucciardi, but the government should also be subsidizing healthy foods to make them more affordable for people going through financial difficulties.
“There’s a lot of people who may say that access to food is a human right,” Gucciardi said.
“These people need jobs. These people need housing. Minimum wage needs to come up. There needs to be a policy-driven solution for this. We’re like the little cog in this huge problem.We’re just trying to support them better.”