February 28th, 2022. By: Kim Zarzour, thestar.com, Original Article.
Amid the dark memories of childhood as an impoverished refugee, Cheyanne Ratnam remembers one bright light: the roast paan bread her mother served for dinner.
It wasn’t until much later that Ratnam, 34, realized this memory hid a sad secret.
“I used to dig into the middle of the bread. I didn’t even know, my mom always ate just the crust. A single mother trying to feed her child and not having money, she was, in essence, starving herself.”
Her heart breaks now, thinking of the many ways her mother secretly sacrificed to put food on the table and shelter her child from reality — and yet, Ratnam is still traumatized by those early, hungry years.
Cheap fast food, paan bread and the local food bank kept young Cheyanne fed while her mother toiled at several jobs. Surrounded by stigma and shame, scarred by verbal and emotional abuse and worse, Ratnam ended up in the care of Children’s Aid.
When she “aged out” at 18 and had to support herself, she still struggled with food insecurity — crackers, for example, filled the hole in her belly when she needed to buy a school computer.
It left her with little energy to do the hard work of recovering from trauma and building a better life for herself.
Somehow, though, she did. Ratnam is now co-founder and CEO of the non-profit Ontario Children’s Advancement Coalition, and her experience and research are showing how hunger is inextricably linked to health.
She shared her insight on York Region’s “Out of the Blue” podcast, a weekly exploration of homelessness issues, and she works as an advocate alongside Michael Braithwaite, podcast host and Blue Door’s CEO.
Braithwaite sees the fallout from food insecurity regularly.
“Many times we’ve seen our clients eat as much as they can in their first few days at Blue Door, worried that they face a future of hunger.
“It’s heartbreaking and just plain wrong.”
It’s also unhealthy.
With more nutritious food prices skyrocketing, inflation and York region’s housing costs continuing to rise, some families make tough choices: pay rent or buy tomatoes, purchase medicine or milk, says Lauren Kennedy, with Ontario Dietitians in Public Health.
If you’re on a tight budget, healthy-but-pricier groceries are often first to go, replaced with cheaper crackers or other high-calorie choices to fill an empty stomach, she says.
It can lead to a cascade of health impacts such as fetal malnutrition and cessation of breastfeeding among food-insecure pregnant moms, bone fractures and asthma among children; arthritis or inability to purchase medications among older adults, says Nancy Bevilacqua, York Region public health nutritionist.
It can even cut life short. The average lifespan for severely food-insecure adults is nine years shorter, a University of Toronto research study showed.
All this places a large burden on our health-care system. In Ontario, people who are the most food insecure can have health care costs up to 121 per cent higher, says Kennedy.
Mental health also takes a hit.
A Statistics Canada analysis found that Canadians living in moderately food-insecure households were nearly three times as likely to report adverse mental health outcomes.
Children living in food-insecure homes are more likely to suffer hyperactivity and inattention, depression, social anxiety and suicidal thoughts, Ontario dietitians say.
“One of the things that isn’t talked about enough is the social impact,” said Kate Greavette, executive director of York Region Food Network.
“They will likely skip out on potlucks because they don’t have the food to bring. They’ll not join friends or family dinners because they can’t afford to eat at a restaurant and won’t have dinner parties or have people over because they can’t offer anything.”
York region parents surveyed as part of a 2018 Canadian study said they often would not let their kids have friends visit because they didn’t have snacks to offer, or were unable to invite them for a meal.
“It was just so rough … it kind of tore up so many parents,” Greavette says. “It was really disheartening to see.”