National Nutrition Month: FFAR’s Bold Solutions Addressing Food Insecurity
March is National Nutrition Month, an excellent time to highlight the importance of good nutrition in promoting overall health and well-being. Nutritional health plays a significant role in maintaining a balanced lifestyle, reducing the risk of chronic diseases and improving mental health.
This year’s National Nutrition Month theme, Fuel for the Future, is a reminder to eat a variety of foods from different food groups, shop with sustainability in mind and eat locally grown and in-season food when possible. Incorporating more plant foods and limiting processed foods can improve our health and protect the environment. However, only a small proportion of the U.S. population consumes the recommended amounts of plant foods. Specifically, only 10%, 12% and 16% of U.S. adults consume the recommended daily amounts of vegetables, fruits and whole grains, respectively.
Consuming in-season fruits and vegetables is one way of incorporating affordable and nutrient-dense foods into our diet. I usually look forward to the summer when I can buy local fresh tomatoes and a diverse mix of squashes at the farmers market. Fresh produce may not be available all year round; however, I always try to select minimally processed produce with low sodium levels and low or no added sugars. Despite the advances in the U.S. food system, more work is needed to address the inequities in availability and accessibility of healthful foods in low-income and minority communities. Systemic challenges – food insecurity, inequitable food access and limited nutritional education resources – make it difficult for many individuals to achieve and maintain a healthful diet.
Inequity is pervasive in many societies around the world. My interest in nutrition started during my Baccalaureate studies at Egerton University in Kenya. I completed an internship in rural Kenya where I worked with women’s groups and observed the high demand placed on mothers’ time coupled with minimal nutritional support within their households. With most of their husbands living and working outside the homes, mothers were the primary caregivers, engaged in income-generation, farmed the land, gathered food and prepared meals. However, they were the last to eat and often missed meals during times of scarcity. Furthermore, pregnancy and breastfeeding place high nutritional demands on mothers, which if left unmet, are likely to lead to poor child growth and development and a vicious cycle of malnutrition. The research that I conducted at Egerton University on breastfeeding practices in rural Kenya highlighted the importance of addressing maternal food security when promoting recommended breastfeeding practices.
Although mothers’ food and nutrition security and infant feeding practices are intricately linked, these topics have traditionally been addressed separately. Various nutrition challenges are addressed within the health sector while food production, processing and distribution are addressed within other sectors. When we address the connections within the food systems, from food production to the consumer, we increase the likelihood of identifying sustainable solutions to nutrition challenges. Connecting nutritionists with food system leaders and members of the food and agriculture community is crucial in pioneering bold solutions that address these challenges.
While the United States food system is highly productive, current or potential food system challenges can endanger health. One in ten Americans are food insecure due to several factors, including financial constraints and gaps in distribution models. The prevalence of food insecurity in the U.S. is highest among households with incomes below the poverty line, single-mother households, Hispanic households and Black non-Hispanic households.
FFAR’s Health-Agriculture Nexus Challenge Area is uniquely positioned to supports audacious research that reduces food and nutrition insecurity, decreases food waste and loss and improves overall health. Our research spans from breeding better nutrition and improving processing and packaging technologies to increasing access to nutritious foods and reducing food loss and waste. Health-Agriculture Nexus also supports the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which are 17 goals set by the United Nations to enhance peace and prosperity, eradicate poverty and protect the environment.
Nutrition touches many facets of our lives and addressing food security and nutrition challenges goes far beyond having a full tummy. My work with women farmers in rural Kenya demonstrates that promoting and supporting climate-safe agricultural practices were associated with increased farmer knowledge, improved household food security, increased dietary diversity for mothers and children, strengthened farmer support networks and more confident farmers. Similar climate-friendly approaches can be explored and adapted for use in the U.S. FFAR-supported research has the potential to positively impact communities within and outside the U.S.
National Nutrition Month reminds us that nutrition is key to addressing a multitude of societal challenges. This month is also a reminder about the importance of supporting audacious research to address some of these challenges. We continue to seek diverse voices and resources to advance knowledge and practice across different points of the Health-Agriculture Nexus and help define how our society fuels for the future.
About the Author
Constance Gewa, Ph.D., Senior Program Director
Dr. Constance Gewa joined the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) in January 2023 as a senior program director for the Health-Agriculture Nexus Challenge Area. Prior to joining FFAR, Gewa served as an associate professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at George Mason University. Gewa brings over 20 years of experience in human nutrition and public health research with expertise in conducting research among mothers and children in low-income communities. Gewa received a doctorate in Public Health from the University of California, Los Angeles. She also earned a master’s degree in Applied Human Nutrition from the University of Nairobi.