Hibbah Saeed joined ScHARR, University of Sheffield as a PhD student in October 2013. Prior to starting her PhD, she worked as a Research Assistant at the Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research, Ghana. Her PhD project falls broadly under migrant health, her researching adopting a mixed method approach to explore the determinants of dietary behaviour, dietary change following migration and household food insecurity among Ghanaians living in the United Kingdom. Hibbah was a prize winner at the recent 7th Annual SIID PGR Conference.
As a Public Health Nutritionist, I have always been interested in people’s dietary behaviours. However, my recent research interest in migrant health and nutrition developed after my visits to the UK prior to starting my PhD. I observed that people of African origin appeared to be overweight/obese as compared to other population groups. I, therefore, developed an interest in migrant groups living in high-income countries, finding a plethora of research on obesity and diabetes within some migrant groups, especially South Asians living in Europe. There were a few studies on overweight/obesity amongst Ghanaians living in the Netherlands, but I could not identify any research on dietary behaviours of Ghanaians living in the UK, despite Ghanaians forming one of the largest African populations. My focus on dietary behaviour is due to the fact that diet is a known key determinant of obesity and other non-communicable diseases. My PhD broadly looks at socio-ecological determinants that drive dietary behaviours of Ghanaian migrants, consisting of three studies: a systematic mapping review, a qualitative study of in-depth interviews and quantitative secondary data analysis. This blog summarises some findings from my qualitative study which focuses on food insecurity.
Research on food insecurity is very relevant for International Development because it is a complex sustainable development issue linked to poor nutritional status. Moreover, poorer health is an important barrier to economic progress, as healthy people live longer and are more productive (WHO).
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “Food security exists when people at all times have physical and economic access to sufficient, affordable, safe and nutritious food for a healthy life, and the security of knowing that this access is sustainable in the future” (FAO, 1996).
Food insecurity has been shown to be multi-dimensional as it is affected by many complex, inter-related factors. However, all these factors are built on the three broad pillars of food availability, food access and food utilization. The components are inherently hierarchical, with availability necessary but not sufficient to ensure access, and accessibility necessary but not sufficient for utilization. If one of these conditions is not met, food insecurity is said to exist.
In low income countries, risk factors for food insecurity include drought, conflicts, gender inequality, inadequate agricultural inputs, poor governance and HIV, whilst in high income countries, food insecurity is linked closely with income and wealth inequality and with social exclusion and disadvantage. Food insecurity is an important public health concern for migrant groups because it is associated with poverty and poor dietary behaviours and health. In the UK, migrant groups tend to have higher levels of poverty than the white British population and therefore may be at higher risk of food insecurity. Some migrant groups have been shown to have poor dietary behaviours following migration. However, little is known about food insecurity among migrant groups from sub-Saharan Africa living in the UK.
The Ghanaian population is one of the largest immigrant groups from sub-Saharan Africa living in the UK. They reside mainly in London, Greater Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool. Ghanaians are thought to have a high level of social support in their communities, but the role of this resource following migration and in relation to food security is unknown. Greater Manchester was chosen as the study setting because it has high levels of poverty as compared to other parts of England.
What I did
I explored perceptions of three main components of food insecurity (availability, accessibility, utilization) amongst Ghanaians living in Greater Manchester. The role of social support in enhancing food security was explored to identify potential coping mechanisms for food insecure households. I conducted 29 face to face interviews with 31 participants aged 25 years or older.
What I found
Most participants did not give any information to suggest that they were food insecure themselves. However, some recognised food insecurity existed within the community. According to participants, this perceived food insecurity was a transient period only for people who were struggling financially due to unemployment or immigration issues.
Other participants were of the view that Ghanaians may be food insecure but would not want the community to know. They would rather keep their situation a secret because of pride or for the fear of gossip.
There was a frequent reference to the social support that exists amongst Ghanaians. Participants explained that due to this Ghanaian trait of sharing and looking out for each other, that it would be hard for a Ghanaian to be food insecure. According to participants, Ghanaians are hardworking and will generally be able to get money to feed their families.
Potential impact of my PhD studies
This part of my PhD shows that food insecurity is perceived to be buffered by social support provided amongst Ghanaians. However, according to participants, where some members of the community may be food insecure, they may be reluctant to make use of food banks for the fear of gossip and pride. Paradoxically, this reluctance does not extend to close networks. The church context forms a trusted base in which people operate; support given through the church (either through social networks or food banks) is more acceptable than through the “official context”.
What can be done
We do not know whether the resources of the church and other social groups are sufficient to meet the needs of the most deprived. Is the church able to target the most deprived? If not, how can we help such people?
What I have learnt so far during my PhD journey
As part of my PhD I led a systematic mapping review on factors influencing dietary behaviours of ethnic minority groups in Europe for the DEDIPAC (Determinants of Deet and Physical Activity project). I have developed networks of useful contacts that are going to be very helpful for international research collaborations. I have also developed skills in writing academic papers, confidence in giving talks and presentations, and skills in conducting and analysing qualitative research.
For the next stage of my PhD, I would be exploring dietary change using secondary data from the RODAM (Research on Obesity and Diabetes among African migrants) Study amongst Ghanaians in five different geographical location i.e. rural and urban Ghana, Ghanaians living in London, Amsterdam and Berlin.