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How hunger and bad housing make you sick —The social determinants of health, part 4

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – The election may be over, but there’s still lots more to talk about.  For part four of my series on the social determinants of health, I’ll focus on food security and housing.

As we explored in part 1 of this series, the social determinants of health are the living conditions people experience that have an impact on whether they stay healthy or become sick.

A unit in Greystone, where the Nova Scotia government is your friendly landlord. This stuff can make you sick in more than one way. Photo contributed

Food, of course, is one of the most basic human needs.  But what exactly is food security?  According to the Food Action Research Centre (FoodARC) at Mount Saint Vincent University,

“Food security means different things to different people.  For some, it means being able to get food that is healthy and nutritious and being able to enjoy it with friends, family and community.  For others, it means not having to worry about having enough food or enough money to buy food.  Food security also includes being able to make a living by growing and producing food in ways that protect and support both the land and the food producers, and that ensure that there will be healthy food for our children’s children.”

Nova Scotia has one of the highest rates of food insecurity in Canada.  Many Nova Scotians cannot afford to buy the quality or variety of healthy food they need to stay healthy, or they worry that they simply won’t have enough to eat.

Food insecurity harms adequate nutrition.  Those who experience food insecurity eat fewer fruits and vegetables and milk products than those who live in food-secure households.  As a result, they consume less vitamins and minerals than they should be getting for optimal health.

These nutritional deficiencies are connected to increased likelihood of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, food allergies, and other chronic health issues.  Single-parent families and families on social assistance are more likely to experience food insecurity, as well.

Childhood malnutrition has long-term effects on children’s physical and psychological development.  Low-income parents who struggle to pay the bills may try to protect their children from the nutritional effects of food insecurity by reducing their own food consumption so their kids can have a healthy diet.

Another major threat to the health of Nova Scotians is poor-quality housing and homelessness.  When we think about what impacts our health, we may not intuitively think about housing.  Housing is not only another basic human need, it is a must for a healthy lifestyle.  If people are living in unsafe, unaffordable or insecure housing conditions, they stand a greater chance of having major health problems.

Overcrowding, lack of clean water, lead and mold, dampness, poor heating and ventilation, and vermin all have an effect on adverse health outcomes.  Children who live in poor housing conditions are at a higher risk of developing respiratory problems and other health concerns as children and as adults.

By far the most significant housing issue related to health is homelessness.  Homeless people are at extremely high risk of any number of physical and mental health issues, and the chances of early death among homeless people is eight to ten times higher than the general population.

Nova Scotia has a significant housing crisis.  According to data from Statistics Canada, 25.4% of households in Metro Halifax spend at least 30% of their household income on housing, and 11.8% spend at least 50% on housing costs.  Housing challenges differ between urban and rural areas.  Many rural homeowners in Nova Scotia have trouble maintaining their homes, and homelessness tends to be less visible in these areas.

So what do we do about these issues?

In order to address food insecurity, those experiencing food insecurity need an increase in income, which of course means increasing the minimum wage and social assistance rates.  Healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables, milk products, and high-fiber foods, must also be affordable, as unhealthy foods are often cheaper.  Community gardens and other grassroots, community-led solutions ae indeed helpful and should be encouraged and supported.  But that doesn’t replace changing policies that address the root cause of the problem.

To address the housing crisis, investing in affordable, non-profit housing, as well as housing co-ops, is an important step.  As well, any housing policy must be clearly linked to income and employment, public health, and health services policies.

We need to understand the relationship between poverty and many other social determinants of health, such as food security and affordable housing.  Food and shelter are hugely important to our health, and many people cannot afford both.  Ultimately, it’s public policy changes that will make the biggest difference in improving the lives of Nova Scotians and create solutions to our health crisis.

Alex Kronstein is an Autistic adult and host of the podcast The NeurodiveCast.  He is passionate about disability rights, social justice issues, and filmmaking.  Follow Alex on Twitter.

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