Food For All: Seniors’ Food Security in Vancouver’s Westside

Rates of food insecurity are increasing across Canada, creating a significant public health issue — even in areas with higher affluence. This is an equally pervasive yet under-discussed issue for older adults in Vancouver’s Westside neighbourhood. In their report Food for All: Seniors’ Food Security in Vancouver’s Westside Community Dialogue, Ksenia Stepkina, Community Development Coordinator at the Westside Food Collaborative of Kitsilano Neighbourhood House, and registered dietitian Karen Giesbrecht define food security and its concomitant effects, outline its prevalence among older adults in Vancouver’s Westside, share the findings of their community dialogues, provide policy recommendations based on their dialogues, and offer suggestions for further research.

 

Food (in)security among seniors

Many of us hold preconceived notions about which populations are most at risk of food insecurity, and it’s likely that older adults in Vancouver’s Westside neighbourhood are not the first demographic that comes to mind. However, as Stepkina and Giesbrecht demonstrate, this population experiences food insecurity for a number of reasons and in myriad ways.

Many seniors rely on fixed incomes from retirement pensions or government welfare. While these incomes are stable and associated with higher overall food insecurity once individuals reach the age of 65, these allowances still may not be adequate to buy nutritious food, leading seniors to buy food that is lower quality and do so less frequently, which may result in malnourishment. Seniors may also experience mobility or transportation limitations, which impacts their ability to access food for themselves — especially for individuals in rural areas or food deserts. Fresh food markets in Vancouver’s Westside are not always within walking distance. Moreover, as age increases, health issues tend to become more prevalent, affecting the types of foods older adults can eat and thus limiting dietary options.

Access to healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate food contributes to seniors’ quality of life, preventing or lessening the impact of illness by keeping the body nourished. Barriers that obstruct this access therefore reduce quality of life and can lead to increased social isolation and mental health consequences.

 

Food (in)security among seniors in Vancouver’s Westside

Seniors in the Westside are more likely to own their homes than other age groups, representing a significant asset, though this also creates the physical and financial burden of upkeep, adding pressure to fixed incomes.

The Westside Food Collaborative (WFC) was formed in 2006 in response to rising concerns about food insecurity. In 2007, the WFC found there to be a serious food insecurity problem in what is commonly perceived as an affluent neighbourhood, and that seniors are one of the most vulnerable demographics.

Lower and fixed incomes combined with rising costs of living have led many seniors to find themselves “house-rich but cash-poor.” The widespread perception of universal affluence in Vancouver’s Westside erases subpopulations such as seniors, who face socioeconomic barriers and stigma when accessing emergency food resources as residents of a “wealthy” area. 

Moreover, Westside neighbourhoods have been identified as food deserts due to the distance between residents’ homes and the nearest grocery store. Social service providers in the Westside launched campaigns and programs to raise awareness and address lack of affordable produce options for seniors, but ceased operation due to lack of sustained funding. COVID-19 only exacerbated seniors’ vulnerabilities when it comes to accessing food, and underscored the need for engagement with those experiencing food insecurity.

 

Seniors’ food (in)security in the Westside Community Dialogue

 

In March 2023, Stepkina and Giesbrecht facilitated a seniors’ food security community dialogue at Kitsilano Neighbourhood House over the course of several weeks. 13 seniors attended, including those with mobility aids, hearing loss, and language barriers, to discuss the four elements of food security (availability, access, utilization, and stability) and were asked to identify strengths, gaps, and opportunities based on lived experience.

AVAILABILITY

Overall, participants made positive remarks about the availability of grocery stores and wide variety of products offered. They also expressed gratitude about the food they have access to through free and low-cost food markets, as well as opportunities to grow their own food in private and communal gardening plots. However, those with health concerns, dietary restrictions, and cultural preferences found it difficult to find appropriate food that meets their needs. When growing their own food, participants cited long waitlists and limited growing seasons as barriers.

ACCESS

Unaffordable prices were the most significant barrier to access that participants identified. Even when food is widely available, prices impact the quality and quantity of food that shoppers are able to buy. Participants shared their experiences adapting to how they access food and expressed anxiety about future access due to rising inflation. They also noted that many grocery store sales are geared towards families rather than single-person households.

The affordability of food often presents a catch-22: locally grown food that is higher in nutritional value and has a smaller environmental impact tends to be more expensive, whereas lower quality food that is imported tends to be cheaper. Environmental impact and food growing methods were an important factor for several participants who followed a plant-based diet.

Importantly, most participants had not used food charity and refused to start, citing a deflated sense of pride or self-sufficiency due to the stigma of accessing such support. They also noted a lack of updated and consolidated information, as well as technological barriers, that prevented them from accessing existing food resources. Participants favoured programs that are founded in community care and social support.

UTILIZATION

Utilization describes the body’s ability to metabolize food and absorb nutrients to produce energy. Food utilization becomes increasingly important with age in part due to dietary restrictions and sensitive health conditions. As such, all participants recognized the importance of food as medicine. While over half of participants indicated that they had nutritional knowledge and food skills, some others admitted lacking the food literacy and skills that would allow them to prepare healthy meals and identify potentially harmful toxins in their food. Along these same lines, most participants reported having a strong knowledge of safe food handling and preparation, though acknowledged some uncertainty when interpreting contradictory public health advice. 

STABILITY

Lack of self-sufficiency was a concern for participants, given that Vancouver’s food systems still rely heavily on food from other provinces or countries. All participants were concerned with rates of food inflation and how this would affect their food purchasing power in the future. Lastly, many participants recognized that food utilization would continue to impact their lives as they age.

 

Recommendations

Based on their dialogues with Westside seniors, Stepkina and Giesbrecht compiled a list of recommendations for each of the four pillars of food security. Examples include:

AVAILABILITY

    • Dietary needs: We must consider the unique and changing dietary needs of older adults when developing community food programs.
    • Greenhouses: There is potential in creating public greenhouses to accommodate a relatively short growing season in this bioregion.

    ACCESS

      • Asset maps: We must know the ever-changing food assets and gaps (i.e., food deserts, or neighbourhoods without grocery stores) to plan appropriate services.
      • Food prices: We must consider advocating for grocery price-control, discounts for seniors (which may include smaller packaging suitable to senior’s consumption patterns), and subsidized food, especially organic, locally grown food.

      UTILIZATION

        • Cultural sharing and belonging: Promote opportunities for cultural food sharing to foster belonging.
        • Food literacy: Some participants talked about making more and more food at home, from scratch, because of rising food costs. While many seniors have significant cooking skills, there is value in opportunities to share and exchange nutrition and food skills knowledge, particularly around cooking for specific health needs, food safety, and food preservation techniques.

        STABILITY

          • Advocacy: There is a need for coordinated food security policy and reliable income support in line with the rising cost of living, both for seniors in the Westside, and beyond.
          • Production: More local food production would result in more stable access to nutritious food.

           

          Areas for further research

          Stepkina and Giesbrecht conclude their report with suggested areas for further research, which include:

            • Advocacy
            • Indigenous food sovereignty
            • Intersectionality
            • Physical activity
            • Program leadership
            • Recycling
            • Trauma informed care

            See pp. 20–21 of the report for more details.

             

            Conclusion

            To reiterate, food insecurity remains a critical public health issue for communities across Canada, including and especially among older adults aged 65 and above. Strategies to address this issue include sustainable income, affordable and nutritious food, accessible transit, lifestyle support, and increased food literacy. It is critical to continue holding safe spaces for seniors to engage in meaningful dialogues where they can feel heard. Stepkina and Giesbrecht call for a “systemic and collaborative approach centered around lived experience” that will improve the health and wellbeing of aging populations and ensure they can lead lives of dignity and respect without worrying about where their next meal will come from.