Food insecurity is strongly associated with poor mental and physical health, especially with chronic diseases. Food banks have become the primary long-term solution to addressing food insecurity. Traditionally, food banks provide assistance in the form of pre-packed hampers based on the food supplies on hand, such that the food items often do not meet the recipients’ cultural, religious or medical requirements. Recently, new approaches have been implemented by food banks, including choice models of food selection, additional onsite programming, and integrating food banks within Community Resource Centres.
This study examined changes in food security and physical and mental health, at four time points over 18 months at eleven food banks in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. The participants – people who accessed these food banks – were surveyed using the Household Food Security Survey Module (HFSSM) and the Short-Form Health Survey Version 2 (SF-12). Statistical analyses included: pairwise paired t-tests between the mean perceived physical and mental health scores across the four waves of data collection, and longitudinal mixed effects regression models to understand how food security changed over time.
The majority of people who were food insecure at baseline remained food insecure at the 18-month follow-up, although there was a small downward trend in the proportion of people in the severely food insecure category. Conversely, there was a small but significant increase in the mean perceived mental health score at the 18-month follow-up compared to baseline. We found significant reductions in food insecurity for people who accessed food banks that offered a Choice model of food distribution and food banks that were integrated within Community Resource Centres.
Food banks offer some relief of food insecurity but they don’t eliminate the problem. In this study, reductions in food insecurity were associated with food banks that offered a Choice model and those that were integrated within a Community Resource Centre. There was a slight improvement in perceived mental health at the 18-month time point; however, moderately and severely food insecure participants still had much lower perceived mental health than the general population.