Research on people with mental illnesses in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside links better nutrition to fewer 911 calls.
Karen Cooper of Corpus Christi College: "Anytime anyone introduces food, you get this enormous decrease in 911 calls, police fire and ambulance." Photo: C. Kimmett
On an empty stomach it's easy to find fault with my fellow transit passengers, even the littlest ones. I'm sitting on the 99 B-line trying not to openly scowl at a toddler who is planted on his mother's lap gnawing at a cracker. His chin is shiny with saliva, and soggy crumbs stick to his fat cheeks. Gross. I look away in disgust as his mom lovingly strokes his hair.
By the time I arrive at my destination -- a café in Kitsilano -- and wolf down a croissant, I'm feeling much better about the world. It's an appropriate start to my interview with Karen Cooper, who can relate to the anecdote.
Cooper, a professor at Corpus Christi (a small Catholic college on the grounds of UBC) understands well what happens to most people's thought patterns when they are deprived of glucose. For the past five years, she has been poring over scientific literature on the relationship between nutrition and mental health and conducting her own original field research in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
Cooper is trying to quantify what most working and living in the neighbourhood already know: food, or lack thereof, has a big impact on people's moods and behaviour.
And she's found a novel way to measure this: by looking at the number of 911 calls to the neighbourhood's single-resident occupancy (SRO) buildings, before and after the introduction of meal programs.
Her research so far, she says, indicates that "Basically, anytime anyone introduces food, you get this enormous decrease in 911 calls, police fire and ambulance."
How much of a decrease? Although Cooper says she hasn't completely finished crunching and analyzing her data, conservatively, she says, the average drop in the total number of critical incidents involving all services (police, fire and ambulance) fell between 25 and 33 per cent across the residences she looked at. That's between a period several months before the introduction of meals on site, and a period 18 months to two years later. Police calls alone saw a drop of between 40 and 50 per cent, says Cooper.
Cooper looked at seven residences in total, and warns me that she needs to collect data from more in order to make her findings statistically relevant in an academic context.
"Having said that, I feel all the time like I'm trying to prove the obvious," she says. "Which is, if you don't feed people, bad things happen. If you don't feed mentally-unwell, addicted and often physically-unwell people, even worse things happen."
The hot meal factor
Cooper's foray into this type of research was accidental. The subject of her PhD was originally "nothing to do with nutrition or food," she says, but rather, empathy. Her focus was on the Sisters of Mercy, a group of nuns who did outreach on the Downtown Eastside.
As she became familiar with the Sisters' work, she realized that food was a major part of their outreach. It wasn't just the food, she adds, it was also the respect that people received there -- but it was her first inkling that food was a research topic worthy of a closer look.
Then, in 2007, at a birthday party, Cooper happened to strike up a conversation with Liz Evans, executive director of the Portland Hotel Society (PHS).
When Cooper mentioned her work with the Sisters, and her growing interest in their meal program, Evans -- who recalls the encounter -- said that PHS had been thinking about doing the same kind of research. Over the past year, the society had begun to deliver hot meals, one per resident, per day, to several of its projects.
Staff had expected to see health improvements -- they even recorded the weights of residents before and after, and noticed body mass increases of between 22 and 32 per cent in some cases -- but what they also noticed was a palpable improvement in the mood of residents, and an apparent decrease in the number of violent and disruptive incidents in the buildings.
When Evans mentioned that they were able to compare this anecdotal evidence with log records of critical incidents that staff are required to keep, "The mathematical part of my brain," exclaims Cooper, "said statistics!"
There is already plenty of clinical research on the impact that nutrition has on brain function and behaviour.
There are lab experiments, for example, that indicate people do more negative stereotyping if they are deprived of glucose. A groundbreaking 2001 clinical trial at Aylesbury jail in Britain showed that when inmates were given multivitamins, mineral and essential fatty acid supplements, the number of violent incidents decreased by 37 per cent compared to those on a placebo pill.
Other researchers in the field say the same type of quantitative analysis is important now -- at a time when the issue of food security is gaining more attention in the social service sector -- more than ever.
Christiana Miewald, an adjunct professor with SFU's Centre for Sustainable Community Development, documented the food security needs of people in the Downtown Eastside in 2009. She found "an increasing amount of activity" in terms of food programming in that neighbourhood, but little in the way of research or policy.
"Anecdotal evidence from program and housing staff in the DTES suggests that when healthy meals are provided, there are a number of benefits," she noted in the report. For example, when the food provided at the Lifeskills Centre was improved from pastries to full meals (breakfast and lunch), staff reported that residents were more attentive and less aggressive, which reduced the amount of time they had to devote to intervening in conflicts.
Bill Briscall, communications manager for Raincity Housing, told The Tyee that one of the supportive housing projects that they manage, Princess Rooms, introduced a community kitchen program, where residents can come for a shared meal, several years ago.
When the program started, Briscall -- who says he used to manage Princess Rooms before taking his current position -- thought the idea of putting 40 residents in a room together was crazy. "When I was there, we would try to minimize interactions between residents that could escalate," says Briscall. "These are people in survival mode... they could be very angry, very protective."
Instead, he says, the meals have had the opposite effect. "Having food is making it healthier," he says. "It's actually improved the atmosphere in the building."