Newcomers need multiple safety nets to achieve food security, says KPU researcher

Mon, Aug 21, 2023

A small farm in Richmond is helping inform the work of Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU) researchers studying food insecurity among newcomers to Canada.

Tilling the soil on a quarter-acre plot at KPU’s Richmond Farm School are members of the Zimbabwe Cultural Society of B.C. (ZICUSO BC), who have joined the university as incubator farmers to have access to land, farming equipment, and mentorship.

“ZICUSO BC is an example of one of many service provider organizations working to support newcomers to build their capacities and social networks,” says Dr. Wallapak Polasub, research and extension program manager at KPU’s Institute of Sustainable Food Systems (ISFS).

Charlet Muskwe and Sibo Ngwenya

On Aug. 24, Polasub and her team will present findings of a new study, conducted in collaboration with the Pacific Immigrant Resources Society, that focuses on the food security experiences of newcomers and how service provider organizations are helping.

Titled “Newcomers to Canada, Food Security and the Local Food Systems,” the study found poverty is the key barrier to food security – made worse for newcomers facing difficulty finding employment due to language barriers or racism. Newcomers also struggle with unfamiliar food, while culturally-appropriate and familiar food is often difficult to find or too expensive. Even a simple thing like the smell of food could indirectly impact newcomers’ food consumption behaviours and health.

One of our project’s participants told us that she lost 40 pounds within the first few months of arriving in Canada because of the new food environment and the differences in how food tasted and smelled,” says Polasub.

Through interviews with newcomers and service provider organizations, researchers found many newcomers would rather be able to afford food themselves rather than depending on an emergency food program.

“One participant said that he would rather be taught to fish instead of being given fish. I think this reflects the general sentiment of preference to have dignity in food access. In the short run, emergency food programs are really helpful during crises, but we cannot let this short-term intervention be our long-term solution,” says Polasub.

The goal for ISFS researchers is to advance understanding of food access and needs, while increasing community participation in local food systems.

“Food insecurity is a problem of income and inequality in our society and our food systems,” says Polasub. “I don’t deny that this is a complex issue. There isn’t a simple solution to it as food systems are connected to every aspect of our lives.”

Listening to newcomers and inviting them to be part of the solution is key, as is collaboration between service providers and governments, notes Polasub.

“Service provider organizations are the ones operating on the ground. They can help advocate for newcomers, amplify their voices, and provide the needed information to our government officials so they can set appropriate strategic policy directions. For example, we know that access to culturally appropriate food is important for newcomer communities. But if they cannot advocate for themselves, affordable ethnic food stores might be pushed further away as neighbourhoods get gentrified.”

The ISFS will present its research at a public event Thursday, Aug. 24 from 1 to 3:30 p.m. beginning at KPU Richmond (Room 2800), 8771 Lansdowne Rd. Following a presentation and discussion, a bus will depart for a tour of the Richmond Farm School. Participants are asked to register in advance.

The ISFS is an applied research unit at KPU that investigates and supports regional food systems as key elements of sustainable communities. It also operates KPU’s farm school program and incubator farm program.