Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Diabetic pet care study on the road

I was delighted to present the research on diabetic pet care to an audience composed mainly of veterinarians and veterinary educators, at the International Conference on Communication in Veterinary Medicine. The Banff Centre was a wonderful venue for the event.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Caring for diabetic pets

For some time now, I've been learning about the lengths to which many people go in caring for their pets, including treating them for diabetes. The first academic paper on this research appeared in print this month, in Medical Anthropology.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Study on Kraft Dinner in relation to social inequality leads to discussion in Alberta's Legislature

Yesterday, our study on Kraft Dinner and food insecurity in Canada became the basis for a series of questions put to Alberta's Minister of Health, Ron Liepert, by Laurie Blakeman:

The official transcript reads as follows:

"Food Banks

Ms Blakeman: Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker. Kraft Dinner
is not a comfort food for those obliged to eat it. So says the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research, whose August report
shows that Albertans forced to rely on the nonperishable items
available at food banks suffer from food insecurity, the inability to
obtain sufficient nutritious food through normal channels. My
questions are to the minister of health. Does the minister recognize
that the reliance of poor Albertans on the processed food available
through food banks creates conditions that burden the health care

Mr. Liepert: Well, Mr. Speaker, there’s no question that healthy
eating is part of healthy living, but the government is not responsible
for what each one of 3.2 million Albertans eats.

The Speaker: The hon. member.

Ms Blakeman: Thank you. Again to the same minister: given that
30 per cent of Albertans using food banks have jobs and still have to
rely on one of over a hundred food banks in Alberta and given the
increasing economic turmoil, how does this government plan to
address the growing gap between the haves, those who have access
to food, and the have-nots, those who don’t, in this province?

Mr. Liepert: Well, Mr. Speaker, we have a number of programs that
I’m sure the hon. Minister of Seniors and Community Supports
would be happy to talk about, but at the end of the day this is a
province that has opportunity for everyone, and we’re proud of that.

Ms Blakeman: Well, to the same minister: will the government
follow the advice of its own report and create a fund to support the
efforts ofthe Alberta Food Bank Network and the CalgaryInter-faith
Food Bank to ensure that Albertans in need have access to fresh,
perishable food and not just mac and cheese?

Mr. Liepert: Well, Mr. Speaker, there are a number of accusations
in all of those preambles to the questions, and I would have a look
at what the hon. member is talking about relative to the document
and see how it can be worked into such things as our nutritional
guidelines for schools."

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Going to the dogs

It's going to the dogs, decreed NYC heiress Leona Hemsley.

More precisely, according to a statement that Helmsley signed on March 1, 2004, a trust whose estimated worth is US$8B is all to be spent on “purposes related to the provision of care for dogs.”

Read on, at the New Yorker.

Outrageous, you might say, especially given that an earlier draft made provision for indigent children. A modern-day malady.

(And yet, in NYC and elsewhere, animal abuse received legal recognition and became a philanthropic cause decades before child abuse.)

When interviewed on the impact of income disparities on quality of life across Alberta, where I live, social worker Jake Kuiken said,

"I did a little check a while ago just out of idle curiosity. If I had a German Shepherd dog and I needed to put him or her in a kennel for a month, it would cost me somewhere around $700 or $800. If you are a single person in this province, you get $402 a month for food, clothing and shelter and transportation. There is a sense of values that are, in my mind, not particularly well-aligned. There is no decency."

But to the extent that the CAD$4B pet care business provides people with a livelihood, and to the extent that pets may contribute directly and indirectly to people's health, perhaps we need to put a fresh spin on the disparity question.

It's one thing to say that social assistance rates should be higher; it's another to say that people spend too much on their dogs, because that money circulates rather than evaporating. How dog owners treat the people who care for their pets, on a paid basis, is the real question. "Treating someone like a dog" has come to mean "like a person," and so one should expect that people in the pet care industry can make ends meet.

Shouldn't everyone be able to afford to keep a dog, if they want one and are prepared to make that commitment?

And what should we make of a growing body of research suggests that dogs promote physical activity and social interaction among their owners, keeping in mind that dogs are more likely than not to reside in households with higher incomes?

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Nowadays, we don't need to go fishing to feed ourselves

«De nos jours, on a plus besoin de pecher pour se nourrir. »

That's according to the director of a community centre based in Montreal, as quoted in the 1 September issue of L'Actualite. The news item draws attention the enduring popularity of angling in the Belle Province, and highlights the involvement of second-generation immigrant youth who practice cath-and-release.

In contrast, social worker Jake Kuiken reports on the shock of learning that a lone mother in Calgary had resorted to fishing in the Bow River to feed herself and her family.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Milk-less mac and cheese story shows up state-side

Thanks to Homesteadingtoday.com, debate regarding our "Discomforting comfort foods" paper has spilled across the 49th parallel. To date, 94 comments have been posted, mostly from people based in the United States.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Milk, Meat, Veggies, and Kraft Dinner: Public discussion continues at CBC.ca

The 137th response appeared on August 31st, and so the lively discussion sparked by our "Discomforting comfort foods" paper on CBC.ca seemed to have slowed to a stop (see: Mac and cheese study reveals Canada's social inequality) .

But this evening, I learned that Andree Lau at CBC.ca posted a separate account on September 2nd.

Andree Lau writes,
"[Kraft Dinner] was obviously not part of my Chinese family's traditional diet, but thanks to TV commercials and such, KD seemed fun and sure to be tasty....But once I had tasted KD, I realized it wasn't really the macaroni and cheese I wanted; it was the idea of having something novel and Westernized that I coveted. I learned last week that Canadians' memories and perceptions of KD are astonishingly varied."

She then provides lucid account of our research project and key results, before asking, "What's your relationship with Kraft Dinner?"

The most recent response appeared today.

(Minor correction to Lau's fine commentary: As you can see from the CV linked under my photo, I'm an assistant professor.)

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Animal-sourced foods and food security

Sitting in my in-box this morning was a list of media reports on the "Discomforting comfort foods" study, which brought to my attention two reports that I hadn't seen.

Embedded in Metro's coverage is a video clip that aired on CityTV.

In that clip, Calgary Food Bank CEO James McAra highlights the importance of offering clients animal-sourced foods such as meat, milk, eggs, butter.

He also underscores that while food banks cannot resolve food insecurity, until we redress the societal roots of this public health emergency, food banks do provide an essential service.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Discomforting study sparks some public debate!

We said we wanted public discussion -- beyond the academic scene -- and there are signs that's beginning to happen.

Entitled "Mac and cheese study reveals Canada's social inequality," CBC.ca's report on our study had, at the time of writing, garnered 83 comments, and 77 recommendations. CBC.ca has linked to the full-text of our paper, to which some of the commentaries refer.

Others have picked up their report, e.g., Google and Sympatico.

Would people experiencing food insecurity use any additional income to buy food?

(that is, would they just fritter it away?)

Yesterday, several journalists asked me variants of that question.

I replied that the evidence available suggests that whenever cash flow improves, so do the diets of people experiencing food insecurity.

Work published in the Journal of Nutrition by Valerie Tarasuk, Jinguang Li, and my co-author Lynn McIntyre, for example, found that "The food intakes of women in deprived circumstances are sensitive to the decline in household resources following the receipt of a monthly check."

In a separate article, published in Public Health Nutrition, they conclude, "Food-insecure women would sustain substantive nutritional gains if they had greater access to their personal healthy food preferences," including fresh milk.

Michelle Schurman, who covers > Healthbeat for Global Calgary, highlighted the money-for-food question in relation to the "properity cheque" of $400 mailed to every resident of Alberta in early 2006.

Francis Silvaggio also tackled the income issue head-on in his report for Global National (> Global National Stories > Mac and cheese).

Let's see some policy innovations in income supports, and let's monitor the effects on nutrition and food security. And let's commit to a a national survey to update the CCHS 2.2 results from 2004, and to assess the impact of political and economic changes since that time.

Food insecurity in the news; Results and next steps

Food insecurity is an urgent public health problem in Canada. That was our main message, and the television, radio, and print media coverage of yesterday's publication of our "Discomforting comfort foods" article has followed suit.

The Calgary Sun's Dave Dormer nailed the story: Food insecurity targeted in study.

(Minor correction: the study took longer than one year to conduct.)

Today, presumably due to the media spotlight, an analyst supporting the Senate Committee on Social Affairs Subcommittee on Cities (which is investigating poverty, housing and homelessness) wrote to request a copy of the study. That's gratifying. I've asked for a meeting.

For more information on this committee and its work, see a Toronto Star column by Carol Goar.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Milk scarcity and Kraft Dinner®: Why the two so often go together, and why they shouldn't

Canada's food insecurity problem is not just a human rights tragedy: it is a public health travesty.

(For more information on food insecurity, see previous post, "Public discussion about food insecurity in Canada," featuring the Canadian Community Health Survey 2.2.)

To the extent that we, as members of the public, believe that charitable food distribution is the only realistic response, we have a fundamentally flawed perspective on the nature of the problem, its causes, and its overall effects. Food insecurity is a symptom of income inadequacy and income insecurity. Preventing food insecurity will mean tacking the various reasons why people's incomes fall short of meeting basic needs, including food.

Today, an academic paper entitled, "Discomforting comfort foods: Stirring the pot on Kraft Dinner® and social inequality in Canada," appeared in the online version of the international peer-reviewed journal, Agriculture and Human Health. I am the lead author; my esteemed co-authors are Lynn McIntyre and Krista Rondeau.

Our analysis highlights that even when members of the public recognize the existence of food insecurity, we often underestimate the severity of the problem.

For one thing, we take for granted the availability of basics like milk and butter. But people living in food insecurity often can't afford these items, especially near the end of the month -- like now.

For another, food insecurity is not just a social problem, it's a public health problem. Malnutrition, but also feeling isolated and unable to exercise control over something as fundamental as what we eat, is bad for people's health.

A media release accompanied the publication, and so this morning, I had the privilege of serving as an interview subject for TV, print and radio. Later today, I will do additional live interviews for CBC Radio's The Homestretch and Radio-Canada's Le quotidien.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Public discussion about food insecurity in Canada

Animal-sourced foods have probably always been crucial to the health of human populations. An important current issue is the unequal distribution of animal-sourced foods, including milk.

Many people living on low incomes in Canada must carefully ration milk, and often go without, research led by my UCalgary colleague Dr Lynn McIntyre has shown.

Yet if you search for evidence of public discussion about food insecurity in Canada, say by typing "food insecurity" and Canada into Google, you don't find very much. Several government and academic documents show up, but not much outside of these realms.

Of course, food insecurity is a more technical term than hunger - but it's also more amenable to measurement. A lot of time and attention has been invested in creating reliable and useful measures of the extent to which people go without food, compromise their nutrition, disregard preferences, and fear running out of food as a result of running out of money.

In Canada, the most comprehensive and reliable statistics available come from the Canadian Community Health Survey Cycle 2.2, which was administered in 2004. That study showed that, in the year preceding the survey, nearly 1 in 10 households (1.1 million people) had experienced food insecurity. For a link to the full report and a synoposis of the key findings, see Shelved in the W's: Working Notes of a Hospital Librarian.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Representations of Animals in Mass Media

While at the International Society for Anthrozoology conference in Toronto, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr Emmanuel Gouabault. Currently, he is a postdoctoral fellow in a research team investigating trends in how Swiss mass media portray animals.

This team hypothesizes that, over the last 30 years, portrayals became more sympathetic overall but that more negative views have recently emerged -- and they provide as examples BSE, avian flu, and dangerous dogs. Note that their examples all refer to human health.

One question that arises from their work, for me at least, is: To the extent that animals and animal-sourced foods contribute to human health, how can threats to human health be publicly acknowledged without generating panic, undermining animal welfare, and deepening social inequalities locally and on a global scale?

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

International Society for Anthrozoology

Last week, I was in Toronto for meetings and to attend the International Society for Anthrozoology, which sponsors the peer-reviewed journal Anthrozoos.

Leesa Fawcett's keynote presentation was especially moving because, when she hired me some ten years ago as a research assistant for a study on how children think about wild animals, she introduced me to the human-animal studies field. She presented some key findings from that study, and shared some of her evolving thoughts on politics and ethics.

We talked about doing some writing together, and I invited her to visit the University of Calgary in the coming months.

Monday, 11 August 2008

World Rabies Day, 28 September

If you're in a position to fund-raise, carry out research, or become involved in a social development project, consider this important cause.

From the World Rabies Day website:
"...more than 55,000 people, mostly in Africa and Asia, die from rabies every year - a rate of one person every ten minutes. The most important global source of rabies in humans is from uncontrolled rabies in dogs. Children are often at greatest risk from rabies. They are more likely to be bitten by dogs, and are also more likely to be severely exposed through multiple bites in high-risk sites on the body. Severe exposures make it more difficult to prevent rabies unless access to good medical care is immediately available. This major source of rabies in humans can be eliminated through ensuring adequate animal vaccination and control, educating those at risk, and enhancing access of those bitten to appropriate medical care."

Those of us who live in parts of the world where rabies is not a pressing public health concern shouldn't take that fact for granted. Ensuring that pets receive rabies vaccinations and efforts to prevent rabies from spreading in wildlife species help to account for why, in Canada, rabies so rarely afflicts people.

A freely-available academic paper summarizes previous research on preventing infectious diseases from being transferred from animals to people, including work showing that even in resource-poor countries, mass vaccination of dogs against rabies is a cost-effective way of preventing rabies from spreading to people:
Zinsstag, J., E. Schelling, F. Roth, B. Bonfoh, D. de Savigny and M. Tanner
2007 Human benefits of animal interventions for zoonosis control. Emerging Infectious Diseases 13(4):527-31.

World Veterinary Congress

Recently I participated in the 29th World Veterinary Congress 2008 in Vancouver, Canada because Bonnie Buntain, a veterinarian colleague at the University of Calgary, invited me to collaborate with her on the content for her keynote presentation on connections between people's health, ecological conditions, and the health of companion animals (i.e., pets).

One highlight of the conference was a day-long session sponsored by Veterinarians Without Borders on links between human and animal health in disadvantaged areas all over the world, from Canada's North to Tanzania to Mongolia. Attending this session underscored that there exist an incredible array of untapped opportunities for veterinarians and other animal health specialists to collaborate with human service professionals (e.g., social workers, physicians, teachers) and with social scientists.