America is facing a food crisis. Each day, the average American consumes processed foods that are full of added sugars, salts, fats, additives, and chemicals like pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones. In fact, these ultra-processed foods make up 50% of Americans’ diets. And we’re seeing the impact diets like this have on our health. It’s well known that poor diets can lead to chronic diseases like COPD, obesity and diabetes.
While we are seeing a rise in these diseases across the country, it’s also issues at the community level that impact access to healthy, nutritious foods-and turn it around. So, what can we do at the community level to plan for better access to healthy foods? We must first understand the issues related to its production, misleading packaging, distribution locally, and geographical and socioeconomic disparities.
In terms of production, companies have been using government-subsidized foods in their production processes, like corn, soy and wheat, to maximize profits. This allows foods to be processed to the point of losing their nutritional value. Also, as was stated above, the production process now includes additives that result in hazardous health consequences.
One approach to solving this would be people being meticulous with the foods that they buy, but for access and expense’s sake, there are other alternatives. For example, community gardens have gained popularity over the past few years, and have been known to encourage community involvement by locals to grow their own fresh produce. Farmer’s markets, in a similar sense, encourage locals to purchase fresh produce from their own farmers, stirring a flow of money in the economy. In San Antonio’s Southtown neighborhood, community members, landowners, and the city council banded together to establish community gardens. The gardens have not only brought fresh food to low-income residents, but also helped establish pride in their community.
Another issue at hand is the use of scientific jargon on food packaging. This prevents the average consumer from properly identifying the components of the products they buy. If they understood what the contents of processed foods meant, then they would be able to make more health-conscious decisions. This can be seen in a recent FDA readjustment of food labels. This makes the contents of packaged food more transparent, and allows the public to be better informed on what they’re consuming.
As for distribution, companies can only transport food to where it’s being sold. Many factors can contribute to a limited access to healthy foods, beginning with geographical disparities. Rural areas are more prone than, let’s say, cities and suburbs, to have food deserts – areas where access to healthy foods is either limited or nonexistent. These areas, in fact, have more access either to processed foods that are hefty in preservatives from stores, or more access to fast food chains. Individuals living there do have access to food, but the nutrient content of their food does not allow for proper nourishment. These problems are not impossible to solve. Building supermarkets in small towns not only provides corporations with a new client to distribute to and locals with healthy food, but employs workers locally as well.
Taking into account the fact that such an investment requires time, projects that could be initiated in the meantime include the development of community gardens and farmer’s markets, as mentioned above. The Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department came up with the innovative idea to take the food to the people. With its Chattanooga Mobile Food Market, they are able to reach community members living in food deserts and areas with little access to healthy, affordable fresh food.
Disparities that Impact Access
A similar case can be seen with socioeconomic disparities, where people (more specifically minority groups) living in low-income areas, have limited access to healthy foods. This can be due to the fact that healthy options are more expensive than processed foods, making unhealthy foods more favorable to buy. Grocery stores may also be located far away and making the journey to them consumes more time and money than people are willing to invest. They may be busy, work long hours, have long commute time, and in some cases, not have the transportation necessary to access places that offer healthy, affordable foods.
For communities that want to improve their health and food access, cooperation is key. Neither the community gardens nor the farmers markets nor the health awareness can be implemented with the efforts of a single individual. If locals agree to organize and develop projects together, as well as cooperate with outside contributors if deemed necessary, then they will know success no matter how small the scale.