Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada

Immigrants and refugee health and the impact of food security

February 2nd, 2023
Dr. Mahasti Khakpour (at right) is pictured here with her research students

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“It is important we take it seriously and consider some structural changes that improves food security for everyone,” ~ Dr. Mahasti Khakpour

Dr. Mahasti Khakpour, an assistant professor in the Interdisciplinary Health Program at StFX, conducts research on global health, immigrants and refugees' health, and food security. At StFX, Dr. Khakpour teaches global health, innovation and equity, foundation of health, food and nutrition for global health equity, and the health honours seminar course. She has taught topics on health and food choice, food and culture, health economics, foundation of public health, food security measurement tools, globalization, acculturation, and nutrition, as well as intercultural communication for healthcare professionals and dieticians. 

What are the barriers to food security faced by immigrants and refugees? What are the health consequences of food insecurity? Can policies ensure the food security of everyone including immigrants and refugees in Canada? 

Those are key questions StFX Bachelor of Arts and Science in Health professor Dr. Mahasti Khakpour is asking as she focuses her research in health equity and investigating how food security impacts immigrants and refugees’ health in an aim to improve health for all. 

“It is important we take it seriously and consider some structural changes that improve food security for everyone in Canada,” says Dr. Khakpour, who is leading a study simultaneously seeking input from Nova Scotia refugee families and policy makers to bring the two views together to identify and address any gaps. 

Nova Scotia often leads the list of most food insecure province in Canada, and this figure is even higher in certain populations including the newcomer and Indigenous populations, Dr. Khakpour says. 

“The association between food and health is important to consider,” she says. 

One of the goals of this research, she says, is to produce a report that goes to the government that may be used to change and impact local and national policy. 

Dr. Khakpour says many factors contribute to immigrants and refugee families facing food insecurity. Among them are lower incomes, survival jobs or no jobs, and the availability of culturally accepted food. Additionally, government assistance they may receive during the first year of arrival isn’t adjusted for inflation rates and right now that creates a big gap between the money the family has and what they need to spend it on, she says. 

While other bills are fixed, one coping strategy the family has is to adjust what they eat, including buying cheaper and less nutritious food. What may start as a temporary thing can turn into chronic food insecurity. 

“We want to hear from the refugee families, what is happening to them. We’re interviewing and collecting data from a diverse group to see how problems can change from one place to another,” Dr. Khakpour says. 

Along with looking to see if geographic location plays a role, Dr. Khakpour and her students are looking at the type of sponsorship each family has. 

Concurrently, they are also interviewing local organizations and policy makers from the provincial to the federal level to understand how they see the problem and what gaps they see and then compare the view from both to see how they can work to resolve any gaps. 

“We’re looking at both sides, at the same time, in the same location.” 

The results of the research should not only impact the refugee population in terms of health, livelihood and integration into the community, it should also impact our health services expenses, she says, and will help allow refugees and immigrants a greater opportunity to contribute their talents to Canadian society. 

Equity has always been an important and guiding personal value in her life, says Dr. Khakpour, who herself immigrated to Canada from Iran. Upon her arrival, she, too, struggled with issues often associated with newcomers and she says she knew she always wanted to involve that experience in her future work. 

She says she has always been keen on social change. 

It was while she was working as the executive director of Saskatchewan Intercultural Association Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to diversity equity, harmony, and providing services for immigrants and refugees, that she could see a gap that wasn’t been addressed and translated into the community. She could see that, if addressed, it could result in a huge improvement in people’s lives. 

Deciding the time had come to do something she’d been thinking about for a long time, she returned to school, earning her PhD in nutrition and public health and specialized minorities health from the University of Saskatchewan, a university from which Dr. Khakpour also holds an MSc in applied economics. 

Dr. Khakpour says she finds teaching is joy, and she enjoys the collegial, supportive atmosphere of StFX, the collaboration with other members of StFX’s health program and developing relationships with other departments and groups across campus.  


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