For years, Ted Blythe was told by his doctors that he needed to eat healthier. Specifically, he needed to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables.
He has heart disease and neuropathy, and he’s had mental health issues at times.
Blythe, 58, said he heard his doctors’ warnings, but given his limited income – $1,169 a month from the Ontario Disability Support Program – following their advice just wasn’t possible. “I couldn’t afford it.”
So when the pandemic hit and Blythe’s options narrowed even further — the food bank where he regularly shopped had closed — he jumped at the chance to be part of a new program that gives people low-income and chronic health conditions a “prescription” for healthy eating.
Blythe is participating in Food Rx, a pilot project launched by the University Health Network and the non-profit organization FoodShare that provides more than 200 people with a twice-weekly delivery of fresh fruits and vegetables.
“It’s awesome,” Blythe said. “I can actually make a healthy meal.”
The idea behind Food Rx is both novel and obvious: giving people stable access to fresh, nutritious food will improve their physical and mental health. Similar programs have been run elsewhere, but the pilot project is the first of its kind in Toronto.
“Prescribing food is not something I wanted to do as a healthcare worker,” said Dr. Andrew Boozary, physician and executive director of UHN’s social medicine program. “It’s a response to broken social systems.”
There were a record 1.45 million food bank visits in Toronto last year, according to the latest Who’s Hungry report from Daily Bread and North York Harvest food banks. (The total represents a 47% increase over the previous year; a typical year-over-year increase is between 5 and 10%). .
Food Rx was launched in the spring of 2020 in direct response to increased food insecurity during the pandemic and concerns from community health workers that many vulnerable people were disconnected from their usual social supports.
“We knew the impact of COVID was not going to be equalizing, but would actually disproportionately punish marginalized populations,” Boozary said.
A large body of research shows that household food insecurity – that is, not having adequate quality or quantity of food due to financial constraints – is associated with poor mental and physical health. According to PROOF, a team of food insecurity researchers from several universities, including the University of Toronto, children who suffer from food insecurity are at a higher risk of hyperactivity and inattention, and an increased risk of developing asthma, depression and suicidal thoughts in adolescence.
PROOF’s research also found that adults living in food-insecure households are more vulnerable to diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, arthritis and back problems. As in children, the risk of depression, anxiety, mood disorders and suicidal thoughts increases with the severity of food insecurity.
One of the main goals of Food Rx, said Sané Dube, another member of UHN’s social medicine team, is to illustrate how health care should be more than what happens in a hospital. or a doctor’s office.
“What if we had a health system that met people where they were and met their needs?
Preliminary data from the pilot project suggests that the bi-weekly deliveries are having the desired effect, with participants reporting significant improvements in their quality of life, overall happiness, and sense of community belonging.
Blythe, for his part, says he’s noticed he feels less stressed since he started getting his FoodShare boxes.
“Every month is always a struggle,” he said, “but when I go to sleep at night I know I had a good meal.”
The pilot project was supposed to last two years, but with record inflation and soaring food prices, organizers hope it can be extended. “We’re in a different place with the pandemic, but people haven’t stopped struggling,” Dube said.
Funding for the pilot comes primarily from the Arrell Family Foundation, but organizers are seeking additional funds to keep it running beyond the end of next month.
Critics of the program have pointed out that giving people a box of food every two weeks does nothing to address the root cause of their food insecurity.
“Why is it a box of food and not a bag of money,” Valerie Tarasuk, principal researcher at PROOF, said in an article published in The Globe and Mail earlier this year.
Boozary and others agree.
“I would prescribe a basic income today if I could,” he said, adding that he would never suggest that giving people boxes of food could solve food insecurity or other related issues. to poverty.
“In the same way that shelters are not the political solution to homelessness… (But) what would you like us to do as health workers in a situation where you know people don’t have the ways to feed themselves, or that they have to make choices between food and their prescriptions?
Sheldomar Elliott, FoodShare’s FoodRx coordinator, said everyone involved in the program is well aware that this is a temporary fix.
“Food Rx is definitely helping people get fresh food right now and reducing social isolation in the process, and that’s wonderful,” he said in an email. “But what FoodShare most wants to see are changes to income policies so people can afford the food they want and need for themselves.”
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