NYC Registered Dietitian Discusses Food Equity and Food Environment

Access to Healthy, Inexpensive Nutritional Options is a Challenge for Many

If there’s anything Covid-19 has taught us, is that there are egregious problems of inequity not only in the United States but around the world. In America, the CDC reports “a disproportionate burden of illness and death among racial and ethnic minority groups.”

Inequality is also prevalent in nutrition. The USDA (US Department of Agriculture) studies consumption patterns for Americans. Lower-income households consume foods higher in salt and sugar content. These dietary patterns are related to chronic disease, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, among others. Add food insecurity to the mix – which is something very real that low-income to middle-income houses experience – and this leads to higher incidences of health problems related to blood-sugar control, as skipping meals (even days of meals) can be common.

 

Food equity, food environment, and access to healthy, inexpensive nutritional options is challenging. This affects not only physical and mental health. Good nutrition plays a big role in academic success as well. Today, I want to discuss food equity and food environment, sustainable eating and waste reduction.

Food equity “is the concept that all people will have the ability and opportunity to grow and to consume healthful, affordable, and culturally significant foods.”

Food equity, then, depends on food environment.

 

Food environment is access and distance to food stores or places where healthy food options can be obtained. It depends on:

  1. The physical presence of food that affects a person’s diet. (What’s in your fridge?)
  2. How close a person is to store locations to access food.
  3. The location of food stores or entities (restaurants, shops etc.) where food can be obtained. (This could be proximity, but it could also have to do with safety. How close can someone safely go to access healthy food options?)
  4. A connected system that provides people with access to food.

Many people’s knee-jerk reaction is, “Buy an apple.”

It’s not that easy.

Everything from densely populated neighborhoods whose only access to food is a convenience store (not a mecca for fresh fruits and vegetables) to the real need to get sufficient calories on a low budget ($1.00 spent will buy 1200 calories of cookies and snacks compared to 250 calories of fruits and vegetables), influence food choices consumers make every single day.

 

Moreover, the food environment of the United States is often considered toxic because, though the foods are normally safe to consume, making good food choices can be really difficult because of the myriad of shiny packages and unhealthy options available as well as lack of nutrition knowledge.

So, what can we do?

  1. Understand that not everyone has access to healthy food choices and food choices made are based on real needs.
  2. Pay attention to food equity platforms. Policy makers need to understand the food chain – from supporting small farm, urban, and community agriculture initiatives to bigger policies that affect, and improve, consumption. Moreover, policy makers must work with community leaders to find viable solutions to making healthier, better food environments. Every community is different. Remember food equity also includes culturally significant foods. This will change drastically from community-to-community.
  3. Nutrition education is critical in schools, community centers, factories, workplaces and more in order to influence behavior and have consumers choose differently. This has to do with everything from understanding food labels to how to prepare different foods.
  4. Affordable, healthy options must be available.

One of the first things we can do to chip away at inequality is to fight for food equity and improved food environments for everyone.

Some organizations to look out for and support are:

Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners
Chef Ann Foundation
DC Central Kitchen
Dreaming Out Loud (DOL)
Edible Manhattan
Feeding America
Food Corps
Grow NYC
GrubTubs