By Kent Bradley, M.D., MBA, MPH – Chief Health and Nutrition Officer
We are experiencing a threat to our food security through the impact of decreasing access to nutritious food. After steadily declining for a decade, world hunger is on the rise, affecting 9.9 percent of people globally. In fact, from 2019 to 2020, the number of undernourished people grew by as many as 161 million, a crisis driven largely by conflict, climate change, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Food Security is More Than Simply Having Access to Food
The definition has evolved over the last few decades, and the most current definition of food security includes “access to nutritious food.” According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, approximately three billion people, almost 40 percent of the world’s population, cannot afford a nutritious, healthy diet and another one billion people could join their ranks should further unpredictable events reduce incomes by one-third. If recent trends continue, the number of people affected by hunger globally would surpass 840 million by 2030.
In general, the world has not made progress in ensuring that all people have access to safe, nourishing, and sufficient food throughout the year or toward completely eliminating all forms of malnutrition. The main factors impeding progress, particularly where inequality is strong, are conflict, climate variability and extremes, and economic slowdowns and downturns. The road to food security became more difficult as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. In fact, according to a study conducted by OnePoll on behalf of Herbalife Nutrition and Feed the Children, six in 10 Americans have faced food insecurity at some point in their lives, and of those, 73 percent experienced it for the first time since the start of the pandemic.
Living in Food Deserts Limits Access, Contributes to Health Disparities
The lack of access to healthy foods in food desert communities translates to health disparities and high rates of chronic disease. Some neighborhoods in the United States, particularly those in low-income areas, have been dubbed “food deserts” because residents do not live near supermarkets or other food retailers that carry affordable and nutritious food. Social determinants of health play a major role in food deserts.
A recent study by Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found that in addition to “food deserts,” or a lack of healthy food options including fresh fruits and vegetables, low-income neighborhoods are plagued by a “food swamp,” or an overabundance of unhealthy choices, like fast-food restaurants and convenience stores. Low-income residents of these neighborhoods and those who lack transportation rely more on smaller neighborhood stores that may not carry healthy foods or may offer them only at higher prices.
Among low-income and food-insecure communities, disproportionate access to affordable, healthy foods contributes to poor nutrition and perpetuates health disparities, leading to higher rates of obesity and other chronic ailments. Food insecurity in marginalized communities is associated with higher rates of some chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, heart disease, and certain types of cancer.
Improving Access to Healthy Food is at a Critical Juncture
Solutions to this escalating challenge are critical, including the need to promote access and behaviors for sustainable healthy diets. Health education and finding a community of like-minded people can help change people’s perspectives on health decisions and behavior, allowing them to make healthier food and beverage choices. Nutrition education and a supportive community helps people make healthier choices when choosing between the “processed” foods available to them. Packaged nutrition products can provide convenient solutions to food desert scenarios. Product benefits include convenience, complete nutrition profile, and shelf life.
Even among food desert communities, healthy eating can be achieved by making informed decisions that can be obtained through education. Understanding the nutritional information on food labels is one way to make smarter eating decisions, choosing from a variety of foods and beverages that are higher in nutrient density. Health is a holistic concept, and balanced nutrition is only one component of living a healthy and happy life. Regular physical activity can help to reduce the burden of chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers, as well as prevent premature death. It’s never too early or too late to make positive changes in one’s diet to help live a healthy and happy life.