Eric Aft: Supporting Access to Healthy Food Can Help Our Children

by | May 29, 2019 | #feedingchange, #feedinghealth | 0 comments

Last week, Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina held a town hall with WXII News 12 about Hunger and Health. At the town hall, I was able to listen closely to local residents, community organizers, and health care professionals as they keenly illustrated the connection between a community’s access to healthy food and overall community health. There were many excellent observations and ideas presented at this event, but my greatest takeaway was that we must work with great urgency to prioritize healthy food access for our children, our seniors, and our communities.

Nearly half a million of our state’s children live in communities underserved by grocery stores. They are among the 2 million North Carolinians who regularly can’t buy healthy food. This lack of access to nutritious, affordable food is taking a significant toll on both rural and urban parts of our state, impacting their revitalization, and the health of our children and families. The fact that North Carolina continues to struggle with high rates of obesity among children and adults, as well as disproportionately high rates of diet-related health problems such as diabetes, heart disease and some cancers is a direct result of this lack of access to healthy food.

People with convenient access to a place that sells healthy foods eat more fruits and vegetables and are more likely to maintain a healthy weight. Additionally, healthy food retailers can promote the economic wellbeing of neighborhoods by creating jobs and spurring additional development. Access to healthy food is a critical component of building North Carolina’s sustainable food systems, healthy communities and strong economies.

While increasing food access, in general, is vital, the key is ensuring our most vulnerable residents have greater access to healthy and fresh food for improving health and productivity. This requires all sectors – private, public, and nonprofit – to work collaboratively with residents to create the most impactful solutions. This is why Second Harvest Food Bank is part of the North Carolina Healthy Food Retail Task Force.

In order to address this issue and improve the health of our state, The Task Force recently issued a report setting out eight major policy recommendations for promoting access to healthy food in under-resourced communities. “Supporting Healthy Food Access in North Carolina” suggests strategies for the development and preservation of healthy, affordable food retail in rural and urban communities across North Carolina.

As was reiterated in the Hunger and Health Town Hall, this is a complex issue and there is no one-size-fits-all solution for communities in North Carolina. The Task Force report recommends support for a wide range of healthy food retail projects, including new supermarket development, the expansion or renovation of existing grocery stores, and alternative models such as farmers’ markets, healthy corner store projects, co-ops, mobile markets, and even food hubs that bolster the local food system and promote the sale of local and North Carolina-grown foods. We also recommend support of a variety of critical efforts and innovations, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), transportation, and nutrition education, in order to increase access to healthy food.

While it is the calling of Second Harvest to convene and act on the issues of food insecurity year-round, summertime brings these concerns into focus for me. In just a few weeks, school will let out and along with all the joys of summer vacation, a silent crisis begins. In nearly all the 18 counties that Second Harvest serves, more than half of all school children qualify for free and reduced-priced meals at their schools. The fact that many of these children face hunger during the summer months illustrates how dire the situation in North Carolina is. And how unacceptable it is.

The recommendations from the Task Force and from the Town Hall panelists- provide a strong roadmap for leaders across the state to make the healthy choice the easy choice in both urban and rural under-resourced communities. Through the implementation of these recommendations, we can help ensure that all North Carolina families have equitable access to healthy and affordable foods, curb the epidemic of diet-related disease disproportionately affecting our most vulnerable residents, and drive economic development in the communities and areas that need it most.

We invite readers to learn more about the work of the Task Force and its recommendations by visiting www.ncallianceforhealth.org and to stay tuned our social channels for updates on these important matters of policy and stories of our work.

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