Dec. 7, 2022

FoodRx project helps Calgarians with Type 2 diabetes break the cycle of food insecurity

UCalgary researcher Dana Olstad investigates ways to mitigate the effects of rising food prices on a healthy diet
Person standing at a table with a box of food, interacting with a jar and a can of food inside the box.
Getty Images

This story is the last in a three-part series on how University of Calgary researchers and the United Way are making progress in the areas of raising successful kidsbuilding strong communities, and overcoming poverty. Together, we can improve lives in our community. Find out how you can help.

Food costs have skyrocketed since the start of the year, with some grocery items 50 per cent more expensive than they were last year. As anyone shopping for groceries today will tell you, prices continue to rise this fall.

The increase in grocery costs is making it difficult for many Albertans to afford healthy meals. This is part of what led Cumming School of Medicine researcher Dr. Dana Olstad, PhD, to develop the FoodRx research program. FoodRx is a prescription program designed to help people with Type 2 diabetes who are experiencing food insecurity.

Participants are given a healthy food prescription and a weekly financial subsidy of $10.50 per week per household member to purchase healthy foods. Participants are then monitored for 12 months through online surveys, blood tests and other physical measurements.

One goal of the research is to better understand the effects chronic illness can have on already vulnerable populations. As Olstad explains, the relationship between food insecurity and diabetes can be deeply intertwined.    

“It becomes a vicious cycle,” says Olstad. “Food insecurity means eating unhealthy food because it costs less. That can lead to diabetes over time. Once you have diabetes, it can be very hard to manage. You need costly medications; you need to eat healthy. People can then become even more food insecure. That’s why we wanted to address these conditions.”

Dana Olstad

Courtesy Libin Cardiovascular Institute

What does it mean to be food insecure?

As the cost of food increases, many Albertans are relying on food banks and other services to make ends meet. The result is an exponential increase in the number of households that experience food insecurity. There is no one way that food insecurity affects households. For some, it can mean having limited food selections due to a lack of funds. At its most severe, some households may miss meals, even going days without food.

According to data collected in 2021, Alberta has the highest percentage of food-insecure households in Canada, with more than 20 per cent of people food insecure and 6.3 per cent of households experiencing severe food insecurity.  

Beyond the cost of groceries

It’s not just the rising cost of food that puts food-insecure individuals at risk. “Food insecurity is a marker of material deprivation,” says Olstad. “The cost of other goods is fixed. You can’t cut back on rent or utilities, but you can buy cheaper food or skip meals entirely.”

As Albertans see an increase in the cost of housing, we can also expect to see the number of food-insecure households rise.

Olstad also cites the kinds of groceries food-insecure individuals have access to as an obstacle itself. As more families begin to rely on food banks, they have no choice but to accept whatever they can get. Oftentimes, this results in lower-quality meals as food bank donations seldom consist of fresh food. It also results in many families receiving foods they may not be familiar with.    

“It’s becoming important because we are a very multicultural society,” says Olstad. “They’re getting food they’re not familiar with and they don’t know what to do with it, so the food just goes to waste.”

United Way is working to make poverty history in Calgary

According to the United Way, 48 per cent of Albertans are $200 or less away from being unable to pay their bills. When people are financially stable, they aren’t worried about their next meal, how they’re going to pay their rent or whether they’ll be able to afford a winter coat for their kids. But for those living on a low income, these worries follow them around every day. For people living in poverty, opportunities to build a good life aren’t equally available.

Through collaborative initiatives like Enough for All, the United Way is helping ensure all Calgarians have the income and assets to thrive, and all populations have an equal opportunity to participate in our community. United Way partner agencies like the City of Calgary, Momentum, and Vibrant Communities Calgary are striving to ensure people have access to food, affordable housing and employment opportunities.

Your donation to the United Way supports collaborative initiatives like Enough for All. Together, we can make a difference.

UCalgary’s 2022 United Way campaign runs until Dec. 9. This year’s goal is to raise $435,000 to help improve local lives. Donate by logging in with your UCalgary email address.

FoodRx is seeking more participants to complete its study. If you have type 2 diabetes and struggle with food insecurity, consider applying to be a part of the study. All successful registrants will be compensated with $300. Find out if you qualify by filling out this survey. For more information about the program, contact the organizers directly at 1-888-215-5189 or email

Dana Olstad is a registered dietitian and associate professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences, an adjunct professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology, and member of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute and O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the Cumming School of Medicine. 

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