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05/17/2018 11:37 EDT | Updated 05/17/2018 11:38 EDT

The Link Between Food Banks And Health Is Stronger Than We Thought

Food banks do more than provide food to the hungry. They can help to increase the variety of foods people eat and contribute to better health.

Although Canada is one of the top 25 richest nations in the world, over 800,000 people across the country are unable to afford food. The number has progressively grown over the years as our economy continues to struggle from the impact of the recession 10 years ago. Although we hear of improvements in the overall economic reality, many Canadians simply haven't experienced the benefit.

In a food crisis, many people turn to food pantries or banks. These non-profit organizations work every day to help the hungry and improve their quality of life. The tireless efforts ensure many Canadians will be able to eat when the financial odds are against them.

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But having food does not mean being healthy. As we have learned, diet plays an important role in health and having a diverse selection containing all food groups is a must to stave off chronic diseases and maintain proper immunity to battle infections. Ensuring these necessities is difficult in an environment where the need to supply food of any kind far outweighs government recommendations.

In light of this dilemma, a group of American researchers wanted to find out if the use of food pantries could improve an individual's health. The hope was to find at least some health benefit related to these visits. Their results revealed how these organizations are helping to ensure food security and, to some extent, keep people healthy.

The researchers chose counties from four different states in which the poverty rate was over 16 per cent and there were no food policy councils in place. This meant there was no local action for the improvement of food security or healthy eating. If any benefits were seen in the study, the food pantry would be the true cause.

The visit increased the availability of food and allowed for an increase the calories ingested. But an increase in calories did not mean an improvement in health.

A total of 455 people were included in the analysis. The individuals were all adults who had visited the pantry at least one time previously. The participants were allowed to collect the food and then were contacted a day later to find out about their intake using a standard questionnaire known as the Household Food Security Survey Module. The individuals were contacted a second time within two weeks of the visit to determine whether there had been any changes in dietary patterns.

Once the data was collected, the team looked at a variety of different elements involved in healthy eating including the amount of energy consumed, the variety of foods eaten, and the frequency of meals and snacks. The hope was to see at least some improvement in all three suggesting a benefit to overall health.

When the results came back, the team was not surprised to see an increase in the amount of energy consumed and also the number of eating occasions. The visit increased the availability of food and allowed for an increase the calories ingested. But an increase in calories did not mean an improvement in health. For that, there needed to be a greater variety of foods taken in.

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Looking at the diversity of food types, the team found that there was an increase in the variety of foods eaten. Even more pleasing was a significant rise in the amount of fruit, which increased by over 50 per cent. This statistic alone was enough to demonstrate the usefulness of the food bank in supporting health through better eating habits.

However, there were some troubling findings. In terms of vegetable consumption, there was no benefit from the food pantry. The same was found for proteins, dairy and whole grains. Even more concerning was a lack of change in the refined grains and empty calories, which are known to contribute to chronic health problems. While the food pantry was making lives better, the effects were limited.

Until Canada finds a way to recover fully from the recession, food banks will be a necessary part of health maintenance.

The results of this study, which the authors admit is small in comparison to the number of people using food pantries, suggests these institutions are important for more than providing food to the hungry. They can help to increase the variety of foods people eat and contribute to better health. Yet, there is room for improvement in the quality of the foods provided.

This is where we as Canadians can enable food banks to keep all Canadians healthy. In addition to the usual donations of frozen or canned vegetables, proteins and whole grains, we can provide a greater variety in the form of fresh produce and dairy products. At the moment, about a third of the items offered are fresh but many banks now have the ability to receive and store perishable products.

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All you need to do to help is find your local food bank and ask whether they accept fresh foods. If they do, arrange for a drop off. Another option is to donate money directly. When you do, you can state your intention to have the money used to increase fresh foods. Many accept online donations making it easy to help with just a few clicks.

Though economic pressures continue to exist, there's no reason not to ensure every one of us has the best chance to be as healthy as possible. Until Canada finds a way to recover fully from the recession, food banks will be a necessary part of health maintenance. Based on this study, we know they can be effective. With our help, they can be even better.

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