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Why Food Democracy Matters in the Food Is Medicine Movement

Power of Ideas
Why Food Democracy Matters in the Food Is Medicine Movement

What does our food system, health-care system, and American democracy have in common? They all need to be saved.

And coming at a critical time, the recent convening of the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health galvanized investments, commitments, and stakeholders to address nutrition security this country. US President Biden announced a new national strategy taking a whole-of-society response in shifting from a fragmented culture of food and health into an integrated one focused on food as medicine. In fact, the US national strategy also called for equitable nutrition research, a diverse nutrition workforce, and a focus on traditional diets. With that, here are a few considerations for the Food Is Medicine initiatives.

A poorly nourished community cannot effectively organize, but once fed and well, we can begin to envision and build a more just society.

1. Invest in an Equitable and Intersectional Food Is Medicine Agenda

Evidence-based nutrition practices guide health-care providers, especially nutritionists and dietitians, which inform their consumer health advice. Currently, there is a lack of data to best guide practitioners in supporting a diverse population. That means increased research investments in traditional foods as medicine ranging from, for example, Indigenous to African heritage diets, must be prioritized. We must invest in nutrition research that examines the health benefits of African heritage foods that ultimately shaped our American food system at historically Black colleges and universities, tribal colleges, and Hispanic-serving institutions and fund Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) nutrition researchers. Therefore, a cautionary tale for health insurance companies, food retail, and technology sectors has seemingly worked together to perpetuate food inequities by erasing traditional foods as medicine.

Also, we must address the generational health and wealth of communities by ensuring BIPOC entrepreneurs who have been historically shut out from accessing capital along with diversity, equity, and inclusion assessments of policies and practices are part of the food as medicine initiatives with joint venturing and inclusive procurement policies.

Cultural foods do not harm us; they heal us. For example, research coming out of Pittsburgh showed that African Americans who swapped a Western diet with an African diet had a reduction in colon cancer polyps and inflammation. In the quest for healthy, sustainable diets for people and planetary health, more equitable research investments should be poured into diets that have been traditionally underfunded.

That’s why Women Advancing Nutrition Dietetics and Agriculture (WANDA) takes an intersectional lens in designing policies, programs, and communications. By doing so, we ensure no one is nutritionally left behind, and we uplift hidden figures in the food and health-care systems. In designing our WANDA Academy (which emerged amid the COVID-19 pandemic), we used a human-centered design approach in ideating and implementing a hybrid learning community with cultural nutrition education by a registered dietitian along with trauma-informed, gender-responsive group coaching, social-emotional support by a clinical therapist, transportation, and cultural food access with women farmers and food retailers on Medicaid, Medicare, and in areas impacted by food apartheid.

2. Expand and Diversify the Nutrition Workforce

We must invest in a diverse nutrition workforce while also democratizing nutrition in this country. Currently, we have less than 3 percent of registered dietitians who are Black (overall under 10 percent are people of color); yet the US Black population is 13 percent. Justifiably, the plight of Black farmers has permeated the media over the recent decade; the nutrition workforce crisis is just as critical. Akin to preparing for a war, we need more troops on the ground with the resources and equipment in this food fight. Right now, we need more professionals and citizens trained in nutrition to combat diet-related diseases; yet, additional requirements and financial hardships add a toll on historically marginalized communities entering the field.

3. Endorse and Adopt a Food Bill of Rights

If democracy represents the cornerstone of America, then food democracy is the cornerstone where we, the people, should be able to enter and participate in the food system. We must begin expanding local food policy councils across the country. Like politics, policymaking is a social determinant of health in enabling or disabling our communities and food environments. Ultimately our values shape how we think about food and who has a right to it.

WANDA conducted a State of Food Democracy survey that revealed respondents overwhelmingly want a Food Bill of Rights. The bill lays the foundation of a shared set of values to guide the future of food and nutrition policymaking and brings together our health, food, and cultural systems. Together, we have a rare opportunity with the food as medicine movement to ensure food democracy lies at the heart of healing our society and our democracy. Can a poorly nourished community effectively organize themselves compared to a fed and well one?