Growing a Healthier Nation

By Lauren Scott, Elon University (2017)

The community that I worked in this summer, Atlanta, lacks the proper structure to sustain the wellbeing of the entirety of the community. The need I witnessed pertains specifically to equal access to healthy options and opportunities for each individual. If the public can support the health of all its members, the entire community will benefit. I define health broadly to indicate a community in which all people feel secure in their physical and mental well-being, as well as in their acceptance as a valuable and worthy citizen. Improving the quality of nutrition for each individual would directly benefit the community. Adequate access to and understanding of nutrition has the power to advance and perpetuate community well-being.

Lauren (Elon 2017) interned at Atlanta Community Food Bank in 2015.

Lauren (Elon 2017) interned at Atlanta Community Food Bank in 2015.


The task is overwhelming when taking into account the structures that currently exist. To be sure, vital infrastructure such as schooling, clean drinking water, and a plentiful food market exists but is not equally available to all residents. Atlanta, like many cities, needs a public and government commitment to an equal distribution of resources. Access and understanding of nutrition should be made a priority for this public effort because one-third of United States adults are obese. Obesity leads to a significantly increased risk for heart disease, type II diabetes, and a generally lower quality of life (CDC, 2015). It is also increasingly alarming because children, especially those from lower socio-economic status families, are growing up progressively more overweight than ever before. Researchers of Harvard Medical School found that over half of obese children are overweight by age two, and roughly one in five children will be of an unhealthy weight by age five (Cerratini, 2012). Children are a lens into the future, and this research does not bode will for a prospective healthy society. This summer, working for the Atlanta Community Food Bank, I witnessed these research findings that socio-economic status is a factor leading to increased obesity. Without adequate income and access to nutritious food, it can be impossible to sustain a healthy lifestyle. Many times nutrition takes a back burner when families are concerned that food will be put on the table.

Through the Shepherd Consortium, I was appointed as the Community Gardens intern for the food bank. The food bank works to combat hunger and increase nutrition quality. Specifically, the Community Gardens program partners with the green spaces of the city to develop access for community members to healthy, local produce. I was initially very interested in this particular program because it removes dependency on the middleman. People requiring assistance are put into direct contact with the tangible aid and gain the skills and resources to maintain food assistance through their own input, rather than receiving constant supplements. Even more exciting, this program enhances the nutritional quality of food. Most of the food the food bank distributes is donated. From my experience working in the Product Rescue Center of the ACFB, not much of this would be recommended by a dietician as the bulk of a diet. Lack of nutritious food perpetuates poor health. If persons continue to receive poor quality food, increase in calories will not resolve the principal detriments of hunger.

The mission of the Community Gardens removes this almost toxic portion of food assistance. The assistance is no longer just a band aid, or worse, a harm to good nutrition. The community gardens provide nutritious food and teach important skills. Persons lacking nutritious food are not merely fed good food, they are empowered and strengthened.

Luckily for the Atlanta Community Food Bank activities are highly visible in the community. Founded by a charismatic and passionate leader, Bill Bolling, the community responded positively to this organization’s effective approach to increasing the quality of life in greater Atlanta. This community awareness supplies an influx of volunteers and partnerships that have greatly extended the reach of the organization currently serving 29 counties. That being said, non-profits alone are not a resolution. People are still hungry, 1 in 7.5 people in Atlanta look to some sort of supplement for food and lack proper nutrition (ACFB, 2014).

This is where I believe the public institutions, i.e., government and market structures, need to be reshaped so that the nutrition problem can be eliminated, rather than merely mitigated. Eating does not need to be taught, it is clearly a human instinct, the requirement of energy (in our society classified as calories) to continue to live, but individuals learn to do it differently. If we consider how our understanding of nutrition influences our daily food consumption and energy expenditures, we appreciate how much the science regarding nutrition and exercise plays a role. The health profession primarily focused more on diseased individuals until relatively recently, overlooking the role of nutrition and exercise for healthy individuals. They have not been considered a priority for health because the focus was on curative measures for saving the diseased. Of course, many diseases cannot be avoided by balanced diet and exercise, but many lives could be spared or enhanced by an intentional lifestyle. Recall that one-third of obese adults face an increased risk to adverse health effects.

We should begin with children, where changes in ways of eating can have the greatest impact on the future of our nation. To advance this priority, I am interested in developing a template that would teach nutrition in public schools, informing the next generation of consumers. This template should teach the most basic information for each grade level. The complexity of nutrition education and the skills to implement it will increase with age. Kindergarteners can water the garden boxes that the 4th graders mulch, and the 9th graders build. The older school kids can even work on engineering and developing sustainable agriculture. It does not need to stop with gardens. Classes can learn about label reading and cooking balanced meals, and actually take a trip to the grocery store to use the skills learned. This shopping for food can also be a method to understand food insecurity by fruitless (figurative and literal) trips to gas stations or convenience stores to buy food. Children need to gain this knowledge and skill set through intentional means before detrimental habits develop. This knowledge can be included on standardized tests so schools would become incentivized to prioritize this comprehension.

Even before the impact of this education emphasis takes hold, we need to focus on partnerships with the market to shift the supply of food. Notorious poor nutrition in the U.S. can be improved if the food market were to supply better opportunities for nutritious eating, rather than blindly focus on what sells and maximizes profits. We need public support for farmer’s markets, for grocery stores with fruits and vegetables in every neighborhood accessible by public transportation, and community gardens like those I worked with in Atlanta. We should demand clear information about nutrition on all foods sold, even in fast-food restaurants. Consumers, especially better-informed consumers, will respond to the improved supply. Many people have the desire and intention to be better-informed consumers. People have joined the “green movement” and have begun to consider the positive (environmental and social) impacts that result in fair-trade and organic food. It is a basic human fundamental right to be healthy, and societal structures need to reflect this opportunity. What I learned in Atlanta confirmed and expanded my belief that we need public action to improve nutrition in order to affect that right, especially for our lower socio-economic status families. I recommend improved income resources for poor families to purchase nutritious food, better and comprehensive nutrition education for all children, and public actions to restructure markets and change the supply of food available for better informed consumers.

References:

Cerratini, Jessica. “Childhood Obesity: Early Intervention is Key.” Harvard Medical School, 17 Sept. 2012. Web.

“Hunger in America Study 2014.” Atlanta Community Food Bank, n.d. Web.

“The Health Effects of Overweight and Obesity.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 05 June 2015. Web.

#AtlantaCommunityFoodBank

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