Today’s special session, "Social Justice, It’s What’s Not for Dinner: Understanding and Overcoming Food System Disparities to Promote Health," gave me more food for thought, but of the healthier variety.
Presenters discussed the adverse health impacts of the U.S. food system and the important role for the public health community in redesigning a sustainable food system that better meets the health needs of all Americans, including those who work to grow, care for and distribute our food.
Don Villarejo, founder of the California Institute for Rural Studies, spent more than 20 years looking at the incredible health inequities facing farmworkers. Out of an estimated 1.4 million U.S. crop workers, about 30 percent have family incomes below the federal poverty level. Obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, dermatitis and decayed teeth are among the poor health outcomes researchers have found among young, active, male farmworkers. The worst part is that the lack of access to care results in undiagnosed and untreated health conditions, and the high prevalence of chronic diseases in farmworkers is, for the most part, preventable through public health interventions, Villarejo said.
Session presenters also touched on the impacts of the dominant food system, which is characterized by consolidation and aggregation in food processing. The structure of the U.S. food system, they said, has led to an erosion of land ownership by farmers, a loss of local control, environmental degradation and health threats caused by industrial farm pollution, and a narrowing of access to fresh, nutritious foods for many low-income communities.
So, where does public health fit in? Health practitioners are critical players in promoting infrastructure and policy changes that enhance food justice and improve people's health, presenters said. There are many drivers for a better food system, but the connection to health is a critical one and will create greater demand for a sustainable, healthier food system.