Nutritious food harder to access in Indigenous communities, study finds

High rates of food insecurity, difficulties accessing traditional foods and water contaminated with trace metals and pharmaceuticals are prevalent among Atlantic Canada’s Indigenous communities, according to a new study.

In the fall of 2014, researchers asked more than 1,000 people from 11 communities in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland about their health and diet.

“We should stress more the rights to food and that being a human right. We’re sad that Canada, a rich country, still allows these high rates of food insecurity to be occurring in particular communities,” said Dr. Malek Batal, one of the principal investigators in the First Nations Food, Nutrition and Environment Study.

Study looking at communities across Canada

The Health Canada-funded study is being implemented region by region across the country over 10 years.

It began in 2008 with communities in British Columbia, and has since collected data from Manitoba, Ontario, Alberta and now the Atlantic region.

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From left to right, Olivier Receveur, Donald Sharp, Laurie Chan and Harold Schwartz with the First Nations Food, Nutrition and Environment Study. (First Nations Food, Nutrition and Environment Study)

“It’s the story across the country. People on reserves do not have access to good quality food,” Batal said.

“So the diet suffers. There’s a high intake of … saturated fats, and low intake of fruits and vegetables, dairy products and grains. But also what is most striking has been the rates of food insecurity.”

31% Indigenous households food insecure

Batal said they use the same tool as Statistics Canada to measure rates of food insecurity, which is when households don’t have the financial means to meet their food requirements.

The study found that of the Indigenous communities surveyed in Atlantic Canada, 31 per cent of households were food insecure, and nine per cent severely food insecure.

For comparison, a report published in 2015 done on food security levels across Canada said Nova Scotia had the highest levels of food insecurity in the country with 17.3 per cent of food-insecure households in the province.

“The average is 30 per cent, but in some communities it can be as high as 70 per cent. We can not indulge community level data, which is why we report on the regions and you only see averages,” Batal said.

Poor water quality, but not unsafe

The study also looked at the quality of the environment in terms of contaminates in traditional foods and water.

While metals that can affect health found in the water were within guidelines, metals that can impact colour, taste or smell were not.

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Tub water in Patricia Paul’s house in Potlotek First Nation, N.S. (CBC)

Aluminum, iron and manganese, which can have strong odours, a metallic taste and cloudy appearance were found at many of the homes tested during the study.

But another concern, Batal said, is that low levels of pharmaceuticals were found in 10 of the 11 communities tested.

This included traces of pain medication, mood stabilizers, anti-convulsants, antibiotics and diabetes medication.

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Esgenoopetitj First Nation was one of the communities involved in the research. (CBC)

Batal said while the levels are still low enough not to pose any health problems, these traces indicate something isn’t right.

“It means that there’s some sort of contamination from human activity, either sewage or some kind of leakages in the water,” he said.

“So maybe the source of that contamination needs to be looked at.”

Barriers to traditional foods

Traditional foods, however, were found to be safe and healthy to eat in these communities, but often times barriers to obtaining that food posed a bigger problem.

The study identified 90 kinds of traditional food in the region, including seafood, game, birds, plants, berries and roots.

Batal said those barriers ranged from not having a person available who knows how to hunt or fish, lack of time and industrial and economic barriers such as logging, mining or hydro development in the area.

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Members of the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs Secretariat at the annual general meeting on Sept. 28 listen to a presentation on the study. (CBC)

“They want to have it, and they do have it on a regular basis basically, but the amounts aren’t very high. The participants have said they want more traditional food,” he said.

Batal said the study is aiming to fill a gap in knowledge about diet and environment in these Indigenous communities, and he hopes that programming is put in place to create better access to traditional foods and cleaner water.

“And altogether improving the health status of first nations [communities].”

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