Imagine running out of grocery money before month’s end and turning to the food bank for help, only to discover you don’t know how to cook anything that’s in the food hamper your family receives.
This is just one example of the problems related to food insecurity that Elizabeth Onyango hopes to help solve with, and for, immigrants to Alberta.
The newly hired assistant professor in the School of Public Health brings with her a distinctive approach to community-based research as well as extensive experience working with marginalized populations in other parts of Canada, Africa, China, and Central and South America.
“We need to be able to really consider diversity so that it’s not just a standard food hamper that’s given to everyone,” Onyango points out. “It is crucial that these services are cognizant of the cultural differences that now exist within the Canadian population.”
Onyango cites the latest numbers from Statistics Canada that show Alberta has the highest rate of food insecurity of any province at 20.3 per cent of households. Her goal is to uncover the systemic drivers behind this social and economic inequality — including racism, colonialism, gender and other forms of discrimination — and tackle them with community-driven interventions and policies that improve health.
“There is a need for us to really understand who are the most affected and what are the factors,” Onyango says. “We need to adjust our systems to ensure that we take care of the most vulnerable — Indigenous people and the racialized minority who are new immigrants.”
Solving problems with community
Onyango uses a mix of qualitative research methods — such as interviews, focus groups, Afrocentric sharing circles and photovoice projects — and quantitative techniques, which use statistical analysis on data from surveys and other sources. This mix allows her to develop a “community diagnosis” and tap into local solutions.
For example, one way to broaden choices at the food bank would be to create a suitable policy environment for urban farming and community gardening, allowing for production of culturally relevant foods that could be donated to food banks.
“Engaging minority populations as key players in urban agriculture will not only address the immediate need for culturally familiar foods, but could also be a means to addressing the underlying root cause of food insecurity — financial constraint,” Onyango says.
For Onyango, this is why community-based participatory research is key.
“The community knows the issues that they are experiencing, and they have ideas for how these issues should be addressed,” she says.
Onyango is setting up her research team at the U of A with two master’s students and a research assistant. Their first project is to collaborate with the Edmonton Food Council, Multicultural Health Brokers, Sinkunia Community Development Organization and other community agencies to create a map of existing supportive services for newcomers in Edmonton, both government-run and community-based. They will then develop a plan to share the information through translated materials and possibly an app, to ensure community workers and service users have better access to much-needed services.
Onyango is also involved with a number of international projects in Canada and overseas through the Hungry Cities Partnership. One will gather photos and memories from Syrian, Afghan and Somali refugees in Waterloo, Ont., to learn how the COVID-19 pandemic affected their food security. Another project looks at why a church-run food bank for African and Caribbean immigrants in the Kitchener-Waterloo area closed during the pandemic and how such services could be made more resilient during times of crisis.
All this builds on Onyango’s ongoing volunteer work with the Pamoja Community-Based Organization in Kisumu, Kenya, and her previously published research examining the health and well-being of vulnerable people in Kenya, including families, displaced senior women and impoverished youth.
Adding an African perspective
Growing up in a small town in western Kenya, Onyango knew from an early age that she wanted to pursue a university education in public health. The ninth child in a family of 10, she lost two siblings as infants to preventable disease.
“My mother was blamed for the death of these little ones, the reason being that it was considered that she did not have good breast milk,” Onyango recalls.
Her mother, Mary Adhiambo Onyango, encouraged her remaining children to pursue their studies, and they now work in fields such as computer science, business and medical research.
“My mum never had the opportunity to go beyond elementary Grade 6,” Onyango says. “I think that was her motivation to drive her children to get an education, because she saw that when people are educated — particularly women — they really have an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of their children.”
Onyango did her undergraduate and master’s degrees in Kenya, and then came to Canada to do her PhD at the University of Waterloo and postdoctoral studies at the Balsillie School of International Affairs. She is one of 12 new tenure-track Black scholars hired last year as part of the U of A’s Black Academic Excellence Cohort Hire. She works with the Centre for Healthy Communities and is a member of the U of A’s Intersections of Gender Signature Area and an associate member of the Women and Children’s Health Research Institute.
Onyango is passionate about adding her unique perspective to what she describes as the U of A’s very supportive community-engaged research environment focused on improving the health of vulnerable people.
“Understanding the African way of knowing, the African way of doing things and African culture becomes quite relevant in the discussion that’s already taking place within the University of Alberta,” she says.