No matter how hard she tries, Momina Reza finds that it is difficult to get her children to be active and eat healthy foods.
One of the biggest barriers for the single mother, who moved to Canada from Pakistan almost seven years ago, is the cost.
“I ask about different programs and their prices, they are high for me and that’s why I can’t afford them,” said Reza, who lives in the Riverdale neighborhood of Hamilton, Ont.
Reza says her children, ages 11 and five, are “doing well,” but acknowledges it is a “struggle” to even be able to afford nutritious food for them.
And for other immigrants like her, Reza says language barriers and long work hours can also make it difficult for parents to encourage their children to participate in extracurricular activities.
Barriers like these likely contribute to health problems seen in newly arrived children, says Dr. Gita Wahi, a pediatrician at McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton, Ontario.
Through his practice, Wahi says he has noticed an increasing number of newly arrived children being diagnosed with obesity and type 2 diabetes.
“What we’ve seen specifically in childhood obesity is that newly arrived children often have lower rates of obesity, and over time, obesity rates rise to the current rate in the Canadian population,” he said.
And she’s not the only one who points it out.
In recent years, emerging research has found that immigrant children in Canada are developing chronic health problems in adulthood as a result of their life circumstances.
Previous Canadian research highlighted a healthy immigrant effectwhich is when an immigrant’s health deteriorates after arriving and settling in their new country.
It’s not clear if that also happens among children who come to Canada from other countries, but researchers say there are Trends indicating poor health in some young immigrants..
“We have a window for when children and families arrive in Canada to make an impact and hopefully prevent obesity-related complications,” Wahi told Breaking:.
Dr. Sonia Anand, a professor of medicine at McMaster University, calls it an “alarming observation” that newly arrived children from racially diverse backgrounds are developing chronic diseases in adulthood, such as diabetes.
“If you have a chronic illness as a child that will affect your future health and probably shorten your life expectancy, I consider that an urgent issue,” he said.
Anand says some of the risk factors include a child’s racial background, their family’s socioeconomic status, access to nutritious foods, and level of physical activity.
New program aimed at improving children’s health
Helping immigrant families connect with nature and prioritize exercise is at the core of SCORE! – a new intervention program that Anand is currently developing with a team of researchers at McMaster University.
“Instead of treating children who have chronic diseases, we are trying to develop interventions that prevent those chronic diseases,” said Anand, principal investigator of the project.
SCORE! released in April last year and is still in the initial design phase, which involves learning about the needs of new immigrants and testing solutions.
The pilot phase focuses on 75 children in the Riverdale neighborhood of Hamilton.
The researchers chose the Riverdale community because about half of its residents identify as a visible minority such as South Asian and Middle Eastern. A quarter of residents also immigrated to Canada in the past 20 years and a quarter identify as low-income, according to Statistics Canada.
No data is being collected on the children enrolled, so researchers said they don’t know if any of them currently struggle with obesity or type 2 diabetes. But researchers do know, based on community demographics, that they are at risk. risk of future health problems.
And what they hear is that children tend to spend more time looking at screens than doing physical activity.
“Often I just watch TV and sometimes I go to the park,” said Jiya Sharma, 13, one of the participants.
“I don’t have a phone, but I spend a lot of time in front of my tablet and the TV.”
Sharma told Breaking: that depending on the day, he can spend between 10 and 14 hours staring at a screen.
So far, as part of the program, children like Sharma have participated in summer activities such as playing soccer and tennis, while also receiving nature education by going to a community garden and exploring Hamilton conservation areas.
Anand says that in addition to cost and language barriers, they are also learning about other issues families face.
In particular, she says families living in apartments find it difficult to access green spaces and parents struggle to figure out how to enroll their children in extracurricular activities.
And while there are community programs aimed at helping, there aren’t enough services that focus on children’s health, according to Lily Lumsden, immigrant and youth services manager at the YMCA of Hamilton-Burlington.
The appeal of unhealthy foods
In an average year, Lumsden says the YMCA in Hamilton can support between 7,000 and 8,000 newcomers across all of its programs.
“We work a lot with newcomer teenagers, so when they come to Canada, they want to be Canadian and when it comes to food and food options, they want to go to McDonalds and buy that dollar burger or Whopper on Wednesday,” Lumsden said, referring to a Burger King promotion.
He said the family could have access to food they didn’t have at home.
“That can create health problems that a settlement agency like us doesn’t have adequate resources to deal with,” he said.
Lumsden added that services aimed at these communities must also have a cultural understanding of the food choices and exercise behaviors that are typical of them.
For this reason, Lumsden says they are looking forward to working alongside SCORE. and help create more programs based on the people they are trying to help.
“It allows newcomers to focus on people who can make a difference and have conversations about their neighborhood, because sometimes those conversations and comments get lost,” he said.
Researchers want to create the ‘ultimate toolkit’
The first phase of SCORE! It is expected to last until March 2024, after which Anand says they will begin evaluating interventions pending further funding from the Public Health Agency of Canada.
“We’re uncovering a number of barriers and trying to break them down and see what might work in the community,” he said.
Anand says they will measure the success of the interventions by collecting information on how children feel their well-being has been affected.
The ultimate goal of this project, according to Anand, is to create a program for newcomer families that reduces barriers and prioritizes children’s health.
The hope is that the pilot will create the “ultimate toolkit for cities to prepare for newcomers when they come to town,” Anand says.