Bridging the Gap Series : September 2022

Bridging the Gap: Addressing food insecurity and promoting nutrition in low-income communities

Introduction by Vice Chancellor Steve Goldstein

The Greek physician Hippocrates, the father of medicine, is often credited with saying “let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food”. In this installment of the Bridging the Gap series, Denise Payán, Assistant Professor of Health, Society, and Behavior, UCI Program in Public Health, makes the same appeal. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, however, reports that this good approach to health is out of reach for 10.5 percent of U.S. households who experience food insecurity — that is, limited access to adequate nutrition, especially healthy food. Payán warns there are many circumstances that produce this outcome and, particularly troubling, that the circumstances do not impact everyone equally. Minority communities, whether rural or urban, face the greatest barriers to accessing food, especially, fresh food.

This month we celebrate Hispanic Heritage and it seems appropriate to reflect on how food insecurity impacts this community. As for many cultures, food is a pillar of identity and the center of many Hispanic family rituals. Therefore, food insecurity undermines good health and cultural bonds. Payán’s research — a fine exemplar of UCI’s discover, teach, heal mission — is elucidating the causes for food insecurity. Moreover, I am heartened to report that her work is providing much-needed evidence that effective, impactful, sustainable programs and policies to bring the benefits of nutritious food into neighborhoods can be achieved when they are community-based and community-engaged. UCI is celebrated because our experts work together across disciplinary boundaries to innovate and Payán demonstrates that to improve health and wellbeing we also need to be wide open to the knowledge and lived-experience of those we seek to serve.

Addressing food insecurity and promoting nutrition in low-income communities

By Denise Payán, Assistant Professor of Health, Society, and Behavior, UCI Program in Public Health

Right now, our country is facing some of the worst conditions for food security and access to nutritious food compared to any other time in recent history. The current inflation rate is nearly 9 percent, the highest it has been in 40 years, with food prices seeing the biggest increase. Onfghi top of ongoing supply chain disruptions and the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, these conditions have only exacerbated food insecurity rates.

Long before the pandemic, minority communities faced inequitable food environments. These are areas where healthy, nutritious food is scarce and often unaffordable. A lack of policies around food accessibility paired with shortfalls in our food systems have created vast stretches of food deserts and nutrition disparities.

We are seeing extreme scenarios of food deserts play out in Latinx, rural America, which has become a destination for many Latino/a immigrants. This population faces a range of inequalities such as a lack of employment and reliable transportation, housing instability, limited access to key health and social services, and language barriers that increase their risk of food insecurity.

There is a common misperception in America that food is plentiful, and everyone has the same access to nutritious food. This is simply not the case. Los Angeles County is a perfect example: West Los Angeles hosts weekly farmer’s markets with grocery stores stocked with fresh produce in most neighborhoods. Less than 16 miles away, there is South Los Angeles, where accessibility to fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods is limited and inadequate.

What is plentiful in neighborhoods, like South Los Angeles, are ultra-processed, cheap foods high in calories, fat, sugar, and sodium — and consumption of these types of convenience foods can lead to higher rates of chronic disease such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and other adverse health impacts. Unsurprisingly, we see more chronic diseases in low-income Latinx communities.ring about sustainable change. 

As a health policy expert, and through numerous research studies, I can attest to the void that exists for practical policies and programs around food insecurity and accessibility. If we do not address this urgent issue now, we will continue to see long-term consequences on the physical and mental health of some of California’s, and really the nation’s, most vulnerable populations. 

Using community-based research to elevate community voices and establish effective policy

A strategy that offers a lot of promise is community-engaged research. Most health policy is written from a top-down perspective, where assumptions are made about certain groups. Community-engaged research brings to light real-life challenges and prioritizes local community assets, resources, and knowledge, and is one of many areas that UCI supports to address health disparities. For example, partnering with community groups and residents to conduct a food environment study can reveal critical lessons to develop effective policies to make healthy food more affordable and accessible in marginalized communities that we know are often ineffective without their input. 

Another important point to consider is understanding the cultural nuances of different populations. Yes, food decisions can be based on policy, but a smarter approach takes into consideration the diverse tastes and needs of various groups. By promoting culturally preferred foods, you are increasing the relevance of a program or intervention and, ultimately, its success.

Listening to community activists, who are on the ground working in the community, is another critical aspect of understanding food accessibility issues. We are seeing more local food policy councils, made up of cross-sector coalitions, crop up around the country. They provide insight that may not be found in a textbook but rather understood by listening to local institutions like churches or community centers. They are often trustworthy sources of information in communities of color and can play a pivotal role to help address nutrition inequity and food scarcity. 

Addressing the consequences of chronic disease can be an incredibly expensive drain on our healthcare system. Improving a population’s diet can be an effective, and preventative, way to reduce those costs and improve health outcomes. And if we promote access to nutritious food and healthy eating behaviors in all communities now, we can set the stage to reduce food insecurity, reduce hunger, and improve health outcomes.

Category: Digital Publications