Category Archives: Food access
While more than 30 million children receive free or reduced-cost meals through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National School Lunch Program during the school year, only about 3 million of those kids sign on for summer meals through the USDA’s Summer Food Service Program, according to agency statistics. While not all 30 million need the summer meals—many are enrolled in summer programs that offer food or have parents that are able to take responsibility for providing meals—USDA and hunger experts know that millions are going hungry each summer, impacting their day-to-day lives, the learning gains of the previous year and learning readiness for the next grade.
“Most of the reason eligible kids aren’t getting meals in the summer is simply because parents don’t know about them,” said Audrey Rowe, head of the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, which runs the meal programs.
Last year, USDA made increasing the number of kids getting summer meals (sites typically serve one meal and a snack or two meals) a top priority, according to a the report Summer Doesn’t Take a Vacation, published by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit aimed at ending child hunger. According to the report, the summer of 2013 marked the first major increase in the number of low-income children eating sponsored summer meals in 10 years, and the program grew last year to serve nearly three million children, an increase of 161,000 children or 5.7 percent from 2012. This represents the largest percentage increase since 2003.
To reach those increases, the USDA worked with organizations including FRAC, Feeding America, Share Our Strength, the YMCA and other national, state and local stakeholders to target states with high rates of poverty, food insecurity and low participation rates in summer food programs. Efforts ran from high-level conversations with state governors—some of whom had known nothing about summer meal programs—to dozens of webinars to teach officials and private partners the nuts and bolts of running the programs. For example, sites are eligible in communities where more than half the area children receive subsidized school meals.
The Prince George's County, Maryland Place Matters team is addressing food inequity by establishing a Food Policy Council and working with the county's recreation department to design and implement after-school healthy eating and active-living programs.
The project is beginning with the waterfront towns of Bladensburg, Colmar Manor, Cottage City and Edmonston, which have drafted a Community Action Plan with strategies on how to reduce chronic disease in Prince George's County. Partners on the Community Action Plan included Kaiser Permanente, the Consumer Health Foundation, United Way of the National Capital Area and the Meyer Foundation. Place Matters plans to replicate the initiative in other county municipalities.
Prince George's County is the most diverse in Maryland; 80 percent of the population is made up of minority groups. According to the 2010 Census, 8 percent of households live below the poverty line, but some of the towns have higher rates of poverty. Cottage City has a 21 percent poverty level, Bladensburg has a poverty level of 12 percent and Edmonston has a poverty rate of 9 percent.
Key Team Objectives:
- Improve healthy food access and wellness for all through food policy and action.
- Create reliable public transit, bike and pedestrian access to schools and recreational facilities.
- Enhance community capacity to lead and support the Community Action Plan.
“What we decided to do was instead of trying to address the full county is to build a model which the county could replicate,” said team co-leader David Harrington. Harrington said the project, which started seven years ago, has “had some good success in helping to address some policy issues and system change issues.”
Place Matters is building a team around stakeholders called the Community Implementation Team and a countywide team called the Policy Development Team, which consists of the county agencies that influence policy and can provide support for help in doing the community work. They were engaged early in the conversation “so that they would consider administrative and other policies that will help them buttress the community work, and then the community work would help then influence their work, so this becomes a supportive concentric circle of activity that helps systems change, as well as change at the community level,” said Harrington.
Lost in the late night guffaws over Chipotle’s report to investors last week that future weather changes could impact the price of avocados—and in turn the availability of guacamole—is that those changes may impact far more than just chips and dips.
The Chipotle annual report told investors that “Increasing weather volatility or other long-term changes in global weather patterns, including any changes associated with global climate change, could have a significant impact on the price or availability of some of our ingredients...[and] we may choose to temporarily suspend serving menu items, such as guacamole or one or more of our salsas...”
The chain’s concern comes from scientists’ predictions for hotter temperatures and less rainfall in upcoming decades, which could reduce the yields of crops such as avocados. But a drop in rainfall impacts so much more than guacamole. Several times this year multiple communities in California, which has faced a severe drought, issued water restrictions as stringent as how frequently people could flush their toilets.
Recently The Atlantic Cities published an online quiz about how much water it takes for common activities such as showers and laundry. The quiz was developed by an Indiana University professor who was surprised by the many wrong answers he got from the thousand people he surveyed.
Do you know how much water it takes to water the lawn? Check out the quiz here.
This month the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health published a special issue of its magazine devoted to food. There weren’t any recipes, unless you count “recipes” for a healthier planet, which can be reached by following some of the recommendations in the supplement.
“Changing what we eat is more complex than it sounds,” writes the school’s dean, Michael Klag, MD, MPH. “It involves not just personal choice but also changing methods of food production and delivery systems so that the right choice becomes the default choice. A new ‘Green Revolution’ that relies on sustainable methods of food production will require partnerships of farmers, agronomists, development agencies and policymakers. Interventions to change the norms of what we eat must be culturally appropriate, and take into account the context of nutritional needs within the population. Such interventions will require partners who understand human and plant biology, behavior, economics and policy. This type of multidisciplinary, population-based effort is a centerpiece of public health...”
Key features of the issue include:
- RX for the Future: How the WIC program got its start
- Planting Health: The seeding of public health
- Photo Gallery: Capturing our relationship with food across the globe
For now, California’s drought is reported to be the state’s worst in forty years, but climate scientists fear the weeks ahead could see it get even worse.
A map (right inset) produced by scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center shows how dry California is compared to other states. Climatologists generate groundwater and soil moisture drought indicators each week, based on satellite data and other observations. This map, from January 13, shows the extent of the drought in California, with lighter colors indicating better soil saturation and darker colors indicating very dry land, compared to historical averages.
California’s drought has public health implications for both the state and the rest of the country for several reasons, including the potential for continued fires fueled by dry grass and trees, which pose risks such as fire injuries, smoke inhalation injuries and even death.
There could also be a produce shortage linked to the water crisis. The Associated Press has reported that city water managers in the state say the drought conditions may mean they have, on average, only about 5 percent of the needed water for consumers and farms in California. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, California supplies half of the fruits and vegetables consumed in the United States. Reduced crop sizes can also drive up produce prices because of a lower–than-usual supply and the need for imports, which can be more expensive because of shipping and other fees.
Tackling the problem of obesity in the United States cannot be done with a single step solution. There are many factors that need to be addressed at the family, school and community levels in order for obesity rates to continue to decline across the country. Unfortunately, not everyone has equal access to the education and options that allow us to make healthier food choices. Higher prices and lack of accessibility to fresh produce serve as barriers for lower income communities in the battle against obesity and improving public health.
In urban areas across the country, groups focused on healthy living and eating are working to develop programs to create more healthy options for everyone. Programs in cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia—to name just a few—have caught on with local food vendors, store owners, public health departments and the general public as we start to see rates of obesity drop in those targeted areas.
>>Read more about the fight against childhood obesity and the signs of progress in different areas across the country.
We have found some great examples of programs across the country that are proving successful in their attempts to increase the number of healthy options available to at-risk children and the greater community.
- In New York City, pediatricians at Lincoln Medical Center in the Bronx and Harlem Hospital have started prescribing fruits and vegetables for children. The prescriptions allow them to use coupons for produce at local farmers markets and city green carts. Medical professionals see this as a longer-term solution to the issues they are seeing children come in with, rather than simply prescribing them medicine.
- With Philadelphia weighing in as the most obese city in the nation, The Food Trust’s Brianna Almaguer Sandoval has enlisted the help of corner store owners to start providing healthier options on their shelves. The Healthy Corner Store Initiative provides store owners with free marketing materials such as labels and recipe cards; trainings on how to select, price and display the healthier offerings; and for some even funding for new shelves and refrigerator cases to help better stock fresh food.
- Groups in Athens, Ohio, are joining together to host an event called “Bounty on the Bricks,” to raise money to create a new grant program to enhance the capacity for local food pantries to provide more healthy options for their visitors in need. Those who bought tickets to the event will enjoy a meal celebrating local farmers and fresh produce along one of the main streets in Athens. The dinner will be held August 10 and organizers have already surpassed expected ticket sales.
While laws to help make it easier for everyone to get their veggies are cropping up all over, some would-be planters get stopped in their carrot tracks by regulations that prohibit use of public spaces for planting, or even limit what can be grown on private property, according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal [note: subscription required]. In some jurisdictions, according to the article, sidewalk gardeners have been fined and may lack the clout to advocate for changing the laws.
>>Bonus Link: Read about Urban Farming, a nonprofit group with high-profile corporate sponsors that supports gardens on unused land.
Many news reports this week put the calorie counts for Thanksgiving dinner at anywhere from 2,000 to 4,500 calories (likely an extra slice of pie and an extra pour of gravy in the latter count), which is why health departments across the country are offering advice on healthier eating and increased activity come Thursday:
- Smart Eating Habits from the Washington, D.C., health department include eating breakfast on Thanksgiving Day.
- Online Thanksgiving cookbook from the San Bernardino County, Calif., health department (the pumpkin bread pudding dessert has only 183 calories and 2 grams of fat per serving).
- A video on healthy eating tips from the Lake County, Ill., health department (survey the buffet and be a picky eater before filling your plate). [See Lake County's November Nutrition Tip video below.]
- Safe eating should also be on the menu. The Mayo Clinic offers tips on how long you can safely serve Thanksgiving leftovers.
The Obesity Solutions Initiative at the Hudson Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., has released a new report, “Better for You Foods—It’s Just Good Business,” that found food and beverage companies with a higher percentage of their sales coming from better-for-you foods and beverages perform better financially.
Funding for the report was provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. NewPublicHealth spoke with Hank Cardello, MBA, lead author of the report, director of the Obesity Solutions Initiative and previously a marketing executive for several major food and beverage companies, about the report and its implications.
NewPublicHealth: Tell us about the study findings.
Hank Cardello: We looked at 15 companies, mostly consumer package goods companies and the large beverage companies such as General Mills, Kellogg’s, Coca-Cola and Kraft. These are the companies that are in the top 30 of the largest food companies in the country and also account for about a third of all the grocery sales to consumers. We looked at sales, we looked at their profits, we looked at their reputations, we looked at their shareholder returns and one of the key findings was this: most of the growth in sales (over 70 percent) was coming from better-for-you products. The other interesting finding was that not only was the percentage increase greater but also the absolute dollar sales were greater. A two-to-one ratio of better-for-you growth versus traditional products such as sugared soft drinks, cookies and ice cream.
NPH: And why is this study so important?
A new online mapping tool from the U.S. Department of Agriculture is helping identify census tracts within the nation where low-income communities overlap with limited access to a supermarket or large grocery store.
The new tool, called the Food Desert Locator, is an Internet-based mapping tool that directs users to "food deserts" around the country. Food deserts are low-income communities that lack ready access to healthy food.
The tool was developed by the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS). The goal of the tool is to help communities expand the availability of healthy food.
"This new Food Desert Locator will help policy makers, community planners, researchers, and other professionals identify communities where public-private intervention can help make fresh, healthy, and affordable food more readily available to residents," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
The map is based on census tracts. According to USDA, about 10 percent of the 65,000 census tracts in the U.S. meet the definition of a food desert. Approximately 13.5 million people live in these census tracts, most in urban areas.
The new mapping tool lets users access a map of the U.S. that highlights and identifies census tracts that qualify as food deserts. Users can scan the map and zoom into an area or use the search feature to find a specific location. They can then create smaller maps showing food desert census tracts and also access statistics on population characteristics of a selected tract, such as the number of households without a car. Not having easy access to transportation can be a factor that can keep households from purchasing healthy foods if neighborhood stores don’t stock them.
Weigh in: Do you live in a "food desert"? Is your community doing anything to change that?