Reducing chronic disease and improving well-being by supporting healthier food choices is the goal of a University of Guelph community-engaged research project that has received funding from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) Healthy Canadians and Communities Fund (HCCF).

Announced today by Guelph MP Lloyd Longfield, the $764,520 award funds a two-year project to promote healthy eating by increasing access to healthy, affordable and culturally specific foods for residents in Guelph’s Onward Willow neighbourhood, home to many low-income and newcomer residents.

Longfield was on campus today to announce the funding and speak with the project facilitator, Dr. Jess Haines, a professor in the Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition within the College of Social and Applied Human Sciences, and the project community advisers from Guelph’s Onward Willow community.

“It’s important everyone in Guelph and across Canada has the ability to adopt and maintain a healthy lifestyle regardless of social or economic factors,” said Longfield.

“Through partnership with the University of Guelph, this funding will improve the quality of life of those across our region, and I look forward to improvements around access to healthy food for people in Guelph regardless of their age or circumstances, in alignment with Canada’s first-ever food policy we developed a few years ago.”

Food Uniting Neighbours (FUN) to design practical interventions to improve food access

The project, Food Uniting Neighbours (FUN), brings together members of the community; community partners including Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health, the City of Guelph, Guelph Community Health Centre and 10C; and University of Guelph researchers to design practical interventions that will improve food access.

The 12 community advisers represent diverse lived experiences and meet biweekly with the research team. Besides discussing food access in the neighbourhood, the community advisers and research team have met with community partners such as Shelldale Farm Park, a community gardening program, and The SEED, a food access program. The project team has also conducted focus groups with almost 100 Onward Willow residents.

“Communities like ours are used to be talked to — and talked at — without any real action coming out of it,” said Dana Nuttley, an Onward Willow resident and one of the project’s community advisers. “I’ve always said, ‘Nothing for us without us.’ With this project, every conversation is led and driven by the community. Our opinions and time are respected. We’ll have ownership of the initiatives that come out of this process.”

“With this grant, the Public Health Agency of Canada has given us the time and space to make true co-designing possible,” said Haines,. “We’ve been able to listen as the community comes up with the answers and the actions that could work for them.”

Small-scale pilot projects to be implemented

The three key obstacles to healthy eating for the neighbourhood are affordability, transportation to obtain food and the skills to prepare healthy meals with ingredients residents can easily obtain, says Haines.

The team will address these priorities by launching small-scale pilot projects in the neighbourhood. The researchers hope to secure funding to implement insights from the projects more widely.

“If we can get these ideas to work in Onward Willow, we can get them to work in other Guelph neighbourhoods, too, and maybe across the province or the country,” said Nuttley. “I’d love to see more community initiatives follow this model — prioritizing community voices and expertise — whether they focus on food insecurity, homelessness or precarious employment.”

“In our initial application, we described the outcomes for food access we imagined,” said Haines. “The outcome I’m thinking about now is about this group coming together, feeling heard, coalescing as a group that is already tackling all sorts of issues together, issues unrelated to this project, because they’re supporting each other.”

Malcolm Campbell, vice-president research at University of Guelph said, “This generous funding highlights the outstanding research at University of Guelph, and how it places a premium on meaningful partnerships.”

“U of G research, like that being led by Dr. Haines, is so impactful because partnership is at the fore. Working responsively with communities to address their research questions creates discoveries that have transformative outcomes for those communities that truly improve life,” said Campbell.