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,"'s report on our study had, at the time of writing, garnered 83 comments, and 77 recommendations. 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.