By Vinussa Rameshshanker, Carleton University Graduate Student
On April 20th, 2021, former police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of manslaughter as well as second- and third-degree murder of African American George Floyd last Summer.¹ What began as another instance of institutional racism within the American policing system erupted into an unprecedented, powerful global movement to recognize and transform the systemic discrimination and institutional violence that has disadvantaged people of colour throughout history. Structural racism has been front and center in recent months, referring to the pervasive inequities within the political, economic, and social systems that shape our lives.² Structural racism has repeatedly upheld ‘white privilege’ (both intentionally and unintentionally) at the expense of disadvantaging people of colour in terms of how they live, the opportunities they have access to, and ultimately their wellbeing and quality of life.
Race – one of our strongest defining qualities – is a social determinant of health and wellbeing because of the systems we live in. We see racial inequities in all facets of life, whether it be access to safe and secure housing, quality education, or healthcare. We see it now as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on. One year into the pandemic, Canadian communities with the highest concentrations of visible minority populations have had roughly twice the mortality rates of communities with the lowest proportions of racial minorities.³
Without a doubt, yet another aspect of structural racism integral to our wellbeing lies within the systems through which we access food. The time for racial food justice is now. Food justice necessitates questioning the inequities, including those related to race, that structure who produces food, who has access to healthy and nutritious foods, and the kinds of food we eat to nourish us throughout our lives.⁴ We all have the right to adequate food, and the implications of having access to quality nutrition, from childhood to our later years, can be simultaneously obvious and complex. Not only does a healthy and nutritious diet allow us to grow and develop as children, but it also affects how we behave and learn in school, which in turn affects the employment opportunities and standards of living we have as adults. True to the insidious nature of structural racism, the ideal standard of upholding the right to food for all is not immune to racial inequities.
For instance, household food insecurity has a strong influence on the academic success of high school students and their transition to higher education,⁵ an undeniable early foundation that paves the way for greater income security and subsequent food security during adulthood.5 However, PROOF (an interdisciplinary Canadian research consortium on food) found that 1 in 8 Canadian households were food insecure in 2017-18.⁶ Even more concerning, the prevalence of food insecurity within Indigenous- and Black-identified households (28.2% and 28.9%, respectively) was almost triple the prevalence of food insecurity amongst White-identified households (11.1%).⁶ A host of factors might explain these disparities, including racialized differences in income, the accessibility of quality and affordable food retailers in the neighbourhood, and housing stability.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 has only exacerbated such inequities. Shortly after the pandemic began, Statistics Canada data highlighted a clear racialized unemployment gap, with visible minority populations facing significantly higher (and in some cases, almost double) rates of unemployment than individuals not of a visible minority or Indigenous identity.⁷ With greater unemployment rates impacting income security for people of colour, the domino effects on household- and community-level food insecurity are not far behind. And so the story of food injustice continues – racial inequities in one system, such as access to economic opportunities, perpetuate inequities in the availability of and access to nutritious foods essential to our health and wellbeing.
Once we begin to recognize structural racism within the very systems we inhabit, the natural next step is to identify what can be done, especially given the apparent amplification of inequities tied to the current pandemic. Recognizing the complexity behind structural racism and food security in Canada is a good start, but the purpose of recognition is not complacency. Rather, we must interrogate why such racial inequities exist, whether it be disparities related to job security or the disproportionate levels of racialized communities living in lower income neighbourhoods that lack access to affordable healthy foods.
Even in the mere act of reading these words, there is an inherent privilege and power you hold. Whether you are a student pursuing higher education, or a working professional browsing the web on your downtime, you have a voice and the agency to bring attention to these injustices. As with other sociocultural inequities in health and wellbeing, racialized food injustice and insecurity is an evident problem, but it is also an opportunity. An opportunity to start talking, questioning, and finding ways to act to implement comprehensive solutions that can help push our society towards equitable outcomes in health, wellbeing, and quality of life for all.
By Zoë Williams, Carleton University Student-Athlete
I tie up my running shoes and head out the door. Gravel crunches underfoot. A song by Taylor Swift plays through my earbuds. Wind brushes against my face as I run. I breathe deeply and look around, enjoying the outdoors on this fresh and sunny spring day.
Exercise. What comes to mind when you think of the word? With gyms closed and physical distancing rules in place I’d bet your definition has changed and that your daily physical activity levels have changed too. Moving from school or the office to working from home has meant that walking to work, class, or the coffee shop, has been replaced with walking downstairs, to the home office (if you’re lucky enough to not be working in your bedroom!), and into the kitchen. Research findings suggest that COVID-19 has changed our exercise and activity patterns, with some people exercising more, others less, and a worldwide study reporting a decrease in daily step counts that corresponded with the first wave of the pandemic (1). A large survey in the UK also reports that fewer people are staying active in the second lockdown. As we move in and out of various stages of lockdown across the country, Canadians may also be struggling with the motivation to stay active. Yet, exercise may actually be one of the best things a person can be doing for their immune system in the midst of a global pandemic!
Hippocrates, a Greek physician who’s considered the father of medicine, is quoted to have said “walking is man’s best medicine”. Based on the evidence, he may have been onto something. Our immune system is comprised of a large array of cells and molecules (check out this video for an immune system refresher) and research findings indicate that moderate intensity exercise can boost our immune system. One of the ways that exercise does this is by increasing the surveillance of our immune cells. When we exercise, our immune cells become mobilized, moving into our bloodstream and then out into tissues where “enemies”, like viruses and bacteria, are more likely to be present (2). If our immune system is our army, you can think of exercise as a signal – moving our army from its barracks and out into the field, telling it to be on high alert for enemies. This means that when we exercise our immune system may be more prepared to detect and respond to potential enemies that enter our body. Although no research has yet examined the effect of exercise on resistance to or severity of COVID-19, studies have reported that exercise can reduce the risk, duration, and symptom intensity of other viral infections. Exercise has also been shown to improve response to vaccinations in older adults by increasing the vaccination effect and reducing side effects (3).
However, in these pandemic times we’re not just facing a virus, but many people are also facing confinement and isolation that comes with lockdowns and quarantines. How may exercise interact with that and the immune system? A recent study examining the effects of exercise on astronaut immune health gives us a look at the interaction between exercise, the immune system, and the stress of isolation. Astronauts tend to experience a weakened immune system during space travel, which is thought to be connected to the stress that comes with isolation and confinement. Researchers found that lower cardiorespiratory fitness during space travel was associated with a weakened immune system, but higher levels of fitness were shown to be protective against this weakening. Although most of us are not astronauts, we are facing increased levels of confinement and isolation and this study shows us that exercise may allow our immune system to cope with the added stress (for more information on stress and exercise, check out this blog!).
You may be wondering what types of exercise we should do for these immune boosting effects. More research needs to be done before we know the specifics, but if you’re an elite athlete or a lover of multi-hour high intense exercise then I recommend you check out this podcast. For most of us, simply getting up and moving at a moderate intensity is key. Moderate intensity exercise can be defined as exercise at 60% of heart rate reserve (which is 65-75% of one’s max heart rate) for a max of 60 min. For example, a 30-60 min. brisk walk. The World Health Organization recommends that adults reduce sedentary time, engage in 150-300 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week and strength training activities at least twice a week, but that this can be adjusted based on fitness level. It may look like a lot, but this is only 20-30 min. of exercise a day! However, if you haven’t exercised before, check out these articles, and make sure to build into it; rapid increases in exercise have been reported to increase the risk of injury (4), but starting at a low intensity and gradually building from there can prevent exercise related injuries, and doing a variety of different types of physical activity may also reduce injury risk (5). For those of us in Ottawa, we are lucky to have the Rideau Canal for skating and a wonderful network of cross country ski, biking, and hiking trails to explore!
So, lace up your shoes, buckle up your ski boots, roll out your yoga mat, and get moving! Your immune system will thank you.
We are currently seeking a a part-time Communications Intern to support our knowledge translation activities and manage our web presence over the summer! Carleton students with journalism and social media expertise are encouraged to apply.
Candidates can send their CV and covering details to firstname.lastname@example.org. For a full job description, click here!
By Jennifer Vorobej, 4th-Year Neuroscience and Mental Health Student