Dr. Lesley Frank spearheads change on food insecurity
An estimated one in eight households in Canada – more than four million Canadians – lacks consistent access to enough food for everyone in the household to live an active, healthy life.
This lack harms their physical, mental and social health. It also adds costs to our healthcare system. Food insecurity is particularly damaging for families with young children, a situation made worse by recent shortages in infant formula and rising costs.
“The problem of food insecurity for families in Canada is not new, however, nor is it limited to the availability of formula,” wrote Dr. Lesley Frank in a Globe and Mail op-ed in May 2022. “In fact, breastfeeding and formula are part of a larger unsustainable food system made worse for families also experiencing economic hardship…. Canadian babies should not be going hungry, especially in one of richest countries in the world.”
ADVANCING FOOD JUSTICE AND HEALTH EQUITY
Frank, a professor in Acadia’s Department of Sociology, is working to address the global problem of family and childhood food insecurity while advancing food justice and health equity in Canada. In January 2021, she became Acadia’s Tier II Canada Research Chair in Food, Health, and Social Justice. Her research has established family and early childhood food insecurity as an urgent nutrition, health, and social equity problem in Canada requiring enhanced monitoring, further research, and national action.
“Dr. Frank’s important research lifts all members of the community,” says Dr. Peter Ricketts, Acadia’s President and Vice-Chancellor. “Her work shines a spotlight not just on issues but on solutions related to food insecurity, especially as it affects families with young children.”
STUDYING CAUSES, SOCIAL IMPACTS OF FOOD INSECURITY
Infants’ access to food is shaped by factors such as whether effective systems are in place to support breastfeeding and to ensure a stable supply of other infant foods.
Frank’s “Feeding in the Early Years in Nova Scotia” study surveyed more than 1,400 caregivers in early 2022. The preliminary findings showed that even before the 2022 North American formula shortage, a third had difficulty finding the formula they needed in nearby stores. Further, 31 percent of families with at least one child under two were also food insecure, 27 percent worried their baby was hungry while breastfeeding because the mother was not eating enough, and 26 percent fed formula while breastfeeding because there was not enough money for the mother's food.
“We should be extremely concerned about the potential impact of this on babies,” she says. “We know the first 1,000 days of a human’s life constitute the most critical period for optimal growth and development, setting a trajectory for lifelong health.”
Frank and her research team are studying the causes and social impacts of food insecurity on vulnerable families with children of various ages. They are also working with other academics and community stakeholders to advance the study of family and childhood food insecurity and share evidence that will strengthen the well-being of Canadian families.
As Canada Research Chair, Frank has launched the Fed Family Lab at Acadia, a space for training and collaborative social research for food and health justice. A project they are already working on explores disruptions to first food systems, with a focus on the North American infant formula shortage.
“In the lab, I’m supporting a postdoctoral project and two student projects,” she says. “This spring, supported by a Harrison McCain Visitorship Award, I’m going to the UK to work with a non-profit and an academic at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. We have been doing collaborative work on advancing research and policy interventions for maternal and infant food insecurity in Scotland. I will be doing a talk, an interview, and presenting at a conference with my postdoctoral researcher. We are also planning to further our work with the Scottish Parliament Poverty and Inequality Commissioners and the Children’s Commissioner.”
A LEADER IN ADDRESSING CHILD POVERTY
Frank holds a BA from the University of King's College, an MA from Acadia, and a PhD from the University of New Brunswick. She has been published widely in Canadian and international food studies journals. Recently, the University of British Columbia Press published her book Out of Milk: Infant Food Insecurity in a Rich Nation.
A leader in disseminating research and policy analysis among the general public, Frank has authored the Nova Scotia Child and Family Poverty Report Card for more than 20 years. The latest was published in March 2023. The Report Card is often the most downloaded report of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in Nova Scotia.
“Food security is a top priority and concern to Canadians,” she says. “Food insecurity during infancy is an urgent nutrition, health, and social equity problem. My hope is that we build adequate economic protections for families to ensure children and their families’ rights to food are protected.”