Rural Canadians face health issues, food insecurity: report

Canadians living in rural communities are more likely to have poorer health outcomes than their urban counterparts, Canada’s chief public health officer says.

In her inaugural report on healthy living released Oct. 26, Dr. Theresa Tam said rural Canadians were more likely to report they were in poor or fair health and tended to have higher mortality rates, particularly from respiratory disease (linked to smoking).

Twenty percent of Canadians live in rural communities — a figure that has declined dramatically from the 50-50 population split of the 1940s. Canada’s rural communities are also likely to be older than their city counterparts.

However, the report wasn’t all gloom and doom.

The report found rural Canadians were less stressed than their city counterparts. Folks who lived in smaller communities were also more likely to report a stronger sense of community belonging.

That last point is particularly critical, given six percent of Canadians say they don’t have a single close friend — a figure that jumps to 15 percent among individuals 75 or older.

Community health outcomes weren’t the only focus of Tam’s report. As Ottawa continues to develop its food policy for Canada and revamp the Canada Food Guide, Canada’s chief health officer also took a closer look at Canadian access to healthy and affordable food.

Food insecurity remains a serious concern for Canada’s three territories, with almost 47 percent of households in Nunavut reporting some level of food insecurity.

It was estimated in 2014 that 12 percent of Canadian households experienced food insecurity at some point in the previous year — a concern that has been linked to poor physical and mental health. Not every province collects data on food insecurity, the report noted, making it difficult to get a big picture look at the issue.

Still, the report found that a lack of access to nutritious food cannot be automatically linked to distance.

“Food security does not appear to be strongly related to living close to stores that sell food or to community food programs,” the report said. “Some evidence suggests that food insecurity is lower in rural areas, particularly for those areas with many farms.”

The report found that many Canadians do not shop for food in their home neighbourhoods be-cause they have access to transportation that allows them to shop elsewhere, such as stopping at the grocery store near work before heading home.

Price remains another primary concern — particularly for low-income households — where food costs have a bigger influence on diet health than location, the report found.

Food stores also differ.

“Stores that sell food in rural areas can differ from stores that sell food in urban areas,” the report said, noting that city zoning rules could be used to help increase a community’s access to fruits and vegetables. Farmers markets and community gardens have also helped.

“Experts believe that current food environments are set up so that it is easy for people to eat unhealthy food,” the report said.

Most of the research that’s been done around how communities are structured — and their access to food — has targeted urban centres, Tam said.

In her report, she noted more research on food access in rural and remote communities is needed.

Then there’s the ever-present knowledge question.

“Information about food and nutrition is constantly evolving, often presenting conflicting messages about what to eat and what to avoid,” the report said.

It’s a confusing environment that becomes even more complicated because of individual responses to food and various nutritional needs.

“What constitutes a healthy diet and identifying how it contributes to better health can vary across individuals,” the report said.

“People differ in how they digest and metabolize food, meaning not everyone reacts to food in the same way.”

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