New Canadians are feeling the threat of food insecurity — and COVID-19 has only made it worse

Fed Up is a collaboration between CBC NL and Food First NL, a not-for-profit organization that works to improve access to healthy, safe and culturally appropriate food.

Coming to Canada can be an exciting time for many immigrants and other newcomers.

But with integration struggles, Newfoundland and Labrador’s high food insecurity rates, and the COVID-19 pandemic, new arrivals in the province can also face severe challenges.

According to Proof Canada, a research team that investigates and publishes annual reports on food insecurity, the odds of a person facing food insecurity in Newfoundland and Labrador rose by 49 per cent from 2011 to 2018.

Close to 15 per cent of households in the province struggle to put food on the table, according to Proof.

Immigrants, international students and other newcomers often face more food insecurity hurdles, driven in part by the uncertainty that comes with living in a new place, adjusting to a new culture, language barriers and other struggles that have been amplified by the pandemic.

Those struggles are felt by a single mother who immigrated to the province with her children just before the pandemic began. CBC News is protecting the identity of the woman due to concerns about her safety.

“When the pandemic started, everything got bad with me. All my appointments cancelled. I need to meet my doctor, I need medicine, I need to go, I have no transportation,” the woman told CBC News in a recent interview.

“I checked around me, and all the people were scared to contact with. I felt like ‘Oh my God, I am stuck here alone.”

Watch the latest installation of CBC NL’s fed up here, co-produced by NL Eats:

Fed Up: New Canadians and the pandemic

Three new Canadians share their experience on food insecurity through the pandemic in the latest installation of CBC NL’s Fed Up series, produced in part by NL Eats. 10:19

Because of her health condition, a lack of access to transportation and limited resources, the woman says she fears she won’t be able to provide food for her children.

“We’re looking for a better future for my kids,” she said. “I came here with beautiful dreams. But with my health condition, everything is gone.”

Her situation did improve slightly when a close friend spoke with a volunteer at NL Eats — a mobile food bank based in St. John’s — who was able to help her family.

Because of her health condition, a lack of access to transportation and limited resources, this woman says she fears she won’t be able to provide food for her children. (CBC)

“They helped me a lot with that for six or seven months. Oh, my God. They saved me,” she said.

“I am still stuck with something bad in my heart, but I have big hope to be fine in the future.… Don’t lose hope.”

I had to change my diet. I literally changed what I actually bought on a weekly basis.– Aaron Tan

On top of struggling to put food on the table, some newcomers to the province also struggle to find culturally appropriate foods and have to change the way they eat.

It forced Memorial University student Aaron Tan to go through dietary acculturation, a process by which immigrants adapt to the dietary practices of their new home country.

For Tan, who came to the province from Malaysia, it meant switching from the food he usually bought to whatever was available and affordable.

“I used to buy from meats and chickens to pork, beef and all sorts of vegetables. To now, just like sausages and maybe fish off and on. Some meat here and there.… I ended up buying a lot of rice, instant noodles , spaghetti, pasta because they actually last longer,” Tan said.

“I had to change my diet. I literally changed what I actually bought on a weekly basis.”

Memorial University Aaron Tan searches a local grocery store. He says he’s unable to buy foods he used to enjoy due to price and availability. (CBC)

Forty per cent of MUN students experience food insecurity, according to data from the Canadian Federation of Students.

Mental health struggles compound food insecurity

Tan is also impacted by another COVID-19-related issue: an inability to access funds from his support network in Malaysia.

“Because I’m an international student, it takes a bit of time for them to send me money especially to wire it from their bank to my bank,” he said. “And with the food shortages, with the transportation issue, it also becomes a barrier.”

The stress of the situation, paired with the early stages of the pandemic, had a great impact on Tan’s mental health, he said. I have redeveloped anxiety and had to see a therapist and join an on-campus group to get back on track.

Studies suggest there is a direct link between food insecurity and adverse mental health outcomes, part of it due to the uncertainty people face as they struggle to meet their needs.

Fourth-year computer engineering student Jinesh Modi says he’s in a similar boat.

Modi, who came to the province in 2017, says a lot of his life decisions were made around the prospect of being able to secure a work term and work in Canada. He had worked in the province locked down, but COVID-19 changed his plans.

Jinesh Modi of St. John’s says better access to transportation would make access to groceries easier. (CBC)

“One month before I actually could start, my work term got canceled because of COVID. That one month, I had no job, and was in a big state of depression,” he said.

Without work, Modi said, his stresses compounded into factors connected to food insecurity.

“At that time, it was a little bit difficult to access the groceries … especially because of the bus, where only nine people at a time were allowed on the bus,” he said.

Modi said more needs to be done to help people get around the city and to improve access to groceries. But in the 2021 budget, the city cut Metrobus and paratransit funding by just under $700,000.

“I think if we can invest a little bit more in streetlights and transportation, things [that] make it more like a city, it would be more easier for more people to come in here as well.”

Fed Up is a series by CBC NL, in collaboration with Food First NL, that explores the issues of food insecurity and why many people in the province struggle to access food.

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