It’s National Public Health Week and today’s focus is Nutrition and Food. At the Malheur County Health Department, our WIC program staff are eager to share information with individuals and families on healthy eating. Check out the Spotlight on Malheur County WIC Program and the Malheur County Food & Nutrition Resource Guide.
Food and nutrition are at the core of many public health concerns, from chronic disease to climate change. In 2021, 10.4% of Americans (33.8 million people, including 9.3 million children) lived in households that experienced food insecurity, meaning they lacked access to adequate nutritious foods. Children need a balanced diet to grow into healthy adults and long-term food insecurity can lead to serious illness, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and mental health issues. Food-insecure families also face difficult decisions like choosing between buying groceries or paying for health care.
Structural racism limits the availability of nutritious food for marginalized groups. Black and Hispanic households are twice as likely to experience food insecurity as white households, and rates are even higher for Native American and Native Alaskan families. Discriminatory policies that cause food deserts, also known as food apartheid, limit grocery options in low-income areas, giving families fewer nutritious options and forcing them to travel farther to buy food. The most readily available foods are often ultra-processed products that are correlated with multiple health conditions. Researchers say the food industry is putting profit before people.
Furthermore, climate change puts our global food supply at risk as an increase in severe weather threatens agriculture. Our current food systems are part of the problem, contributing at least a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions.
Accessibility and affordability of nutritious food can determine a lifetime of health outcomes. To ensure everyone has the food they need to thrive, systemic changes are essential. We need to address structural racism and climate change. We need immigrant-inclusive policies for public assistance and we need policies that make breastfeeding equitable for all. We need to regulate the pervasive marketing of unhealthy foods.
The federal government offers food safety net programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and free school meals, but many food-insecure families are ineligible because of income level, immigration status and other factors. Encourage your representatives in Congress to support legislation that expands eligibility for these programs. You can also provide input on the 2023 Farm Bill, which determines funding for SNAP. Contribute to your own community by volunteering with a food bank in your area, and while you’re at it, ask Congress to keep food banks fully funded. Get involved with grassroots advocacy by joining your local food policy council. For inspiration, read about how community leaders across the country are shaping policy through these councils.
While broad structural shifts will be most effective for long-term improvements in food and nutrition, we have promising stopgap solutions from the local to national levels. Research shows that children who participate in federal programs such as SNAP and WIC have higher levels of food security into adulthood. For those enrolled in SNAP, fruit and vegetable prescription programs have been shown to encourage healthy eating and help with diabetes management by reducing blood glucose levels.
Counter-marketing campaigns are proven to be a successful tactic in combating junk food marketing, along with promoting healthy food options at grocery and corner stores. In Baltimore, increasing access to low-sugar foods and beverages in stores, along with other interventions, led to healthier food purchasing. A San Francisco program that incentivized corner stores to increase space for produce and reduce space for tobacco and alcohol resulted in a 35% increase in produce sold. In Chicago, a medical center increased food access by launching an onsite, self-serve food pantry open 24/7 to reduce barriers and minimize stigma. For all interventions aimed at increasing food security, it is key to start with community engagement to build the trusting relationships that will lead to successful outcomes.
Food is a defining aspect of our diverse cultures, from holiday traditions to special recipes passed down through the generations. To sustainably improve community health, we need a culture-centered approach to food and nutrition.