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Commentary: Nutrition equity can lead to healthier communities

Issue Date: March 16, 2022
By Tammy Anderson-Wise
Nutrition education programs can establish healthy eating patterns for children and influence their academic and lifelong success.
Photo/Dairy Council of California
Tammy Anderson-Wise

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed challenges at all levels of society, including for people impacted by what some call the "inequality pandemic." Public health experts and organizations concerned about the availability of nutritious foods are shining a light on the fact that low-income populations are exposed to health risks at higher rates than other populations.

These challenges are often concentrated in marginalized communities that historically have less access to nutritious, culturally relevant foods, education, health care and technology.

Making nutrition equity a reality across California's varied communities relies on organizations and sectors all working together to embrace cultural diversity, acknowledge disparities and adapt approaches to ensure all children are supported to grow healthfully. As an organization dedicated to elevating the health of children and families, Dairy Council of California looks forward to working alongside our agricultural community in this effort.

For many children, access to nutrition education, healthy food and support for optimal nutrition is severely limited. In California, food insecurity impacts one in seven children, with many lacking essential nutrients due to underconsumption of fruits, vegetables and dairy foods.

Federal and state nutrition assistance programs designed to boost access to nutritious foods like those grown in California provide a critical safety net for communities in California and beyond.

Access to high-quality foods including fruits, vegetables, milk and dairy products is especially important. Research shows that eating patterns established at an early age influence academic and lifelong success. Food and beverage choices affect risk levels for obesity, hypertension and diabetes.

In 2021, California took bold steps to improve food access for young people when it became the first state in the nation to offer free school meals for all children. Gov. Gavin Newsom also expanded the state's Farm to School program, providing grants to schools to procure locally grown foods. This important program is part of the solution to achieving nutrition equity.

Millions of children and their families rely on federal nutrition assistance programs such as the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program. According to research, school meal participants overall consume more nutrient-dense foods such as dairy products, vegetables, fruits and whole grains.

Identifying barriers to health and allocating resources to remove those barriers are also a key part of nutrition equity. Addressing environmental conditions where people live, learn, work, play and gather is critical because they are interconnected with healthy outcomes for children, families and communities.

Many underserved communities suffer from a lack of credible nutrition education. Along with ensuring affordable and accessible nutrient-rich foods and beverages, nutrition education is important to support the health of children and families.

Children need evidence-based nutrition education to navigate through the large amount of information available in today's tech-connected world. Nutrition education leads to informed eating decisions and establishes healthy eating patterns while increasing agricultural literacy and knowledge of how food gets from the farm to the plate.

By advocating for science-based nutrition education that meets people where they are, food and agricultural communities can enhance knowledge, understanding and value for wholesome, nutritious foods from all food groups.

There are many ways to eat healthfully, and acknowledging and embracing cultural preferences toward food choices, especially in communities of color, is also critical.

As we celebrate and embrace California's ethnic, cultural and other diversity, it's important to also recognize disparities in offerings of nutritious foods in different communities. By doing so, we can work to ensure that all people can access nutritious and culturally appropriate foods regardless of race, education, gender, employment, ability or where they live.

Achieving nutrition equity will require collaboration among many stakeholders, including community leaders and experts in nutrition, health and education. At the Dairy Council of California, we are taking action through the Let's Eat Healthy initiative, which brings together educators, health professionals, change-makers and community leaders to champion community health.

Let's Eat Healthy aims to teach, support and inspire healthy eating habits and help make healthy, wholesome foods accessible and affordable to all. Leaders in food and agriculture can collaborate in building healthier communities by joining Let's Eat Healthy at HealthyEating.org/Join.

By inviting cross-sector collaboration and appreciating the influence of ethnicity, culture, religion and education on food choices, the movement empowers healthier communities by finding realistic solutions to address disparities in access to education and high-quality, wholesome foods—two areas that can impact lifelong health and success.

(Tammy Anderson-Wise is the CEO of the Dairy Council of California and may be contacted at AndersonT@dairycouncilofca.org.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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