Purple cauliflower at the PB Farmers' Market
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A group of healthcare experts and local food-industry professionals gathered on Monday (March 21) to discuss the link between access to food and overall health and to explore ways to get healthy food into underserved San Diego neighborhoods.

"Our food system is broken in that it disadvantages many of our lower-income communities," opined Elly Brown of the San Diego Food System Alliance, the group that organized the panel as part of a series of discussions on the region's food problems.

"We have a staggering problem in the county with hunger — 435,000 people in the county are food insecure, 38 percent of those individuals are children," continued Naomi Billups, one of several county Health & Human Services representatives in attendance.

"Individuals from lower-income communities and people of color specifically are heavily targeted by marketing companies" pushing unhealthy products, Billups said, citing as one example an instance in the 1990s when labeling baby bottles with soda manufacturers' logos taught youth to identify with the sugary drinks' brands from a young age — they also encouraged parents to fill the bottles with soda. The bottles have long since been discontinued but were criticized for being donated to food banks that served low-income populations.

"Food access is really important. Early onset of chronic hunger can affect your whole life — people who experience food insecurity are at extremely high risk for developing chronic diseases that create a huge health impact on the individual, not to mention a cost to society," Billups concluded, noting that mental health issues such as excessive aggression, anxiety, and stress have all been found to correlate to food insecurity.

The nutrition problem, experts say, is compounded when the food that's available and affordable is processed, packaged, or fast food of low quality.

"There is an undeniable connection between obesity and food insecurity," Brown insisted.

"We could fill Qualcomm Stadium seven times with people who are food insecure in San Diego County," added Elizabeth Vaughn, with the nonprofit Community Health Improvement Partners. "Yet, over 30 percent of our fifth-graders are considered obese. We're eating more calories, but they're delivering less nutrition."

What can be done about the problem?

"Our garden is flourishing — it's doing exactly what we want it to do in being a catalyst for change," said Diane Moss with Project New Village, speaking of the Mt. Hope Community Garden. She says a convenience store adjacent to the garden has even expressed interest in selling produce farmed next door.

But, "Healthy retail is comprehensive — it's not just about bringing in fresh produce but about changing the entire environment of the store," Ariel Hamburger, also with Health & Human Services, told the group in her pitch for placing healthier choices front-and-center while scaling back heavy advertising for junk food at community retailers.

Hamburger noted participation rates are improving in Fresh Fund, a program that allows recipients of government benefits to receive a $10 bonus for every $10 spent on fresh produce at farmers' markets.

"The research is out there," Vaughn says. "We know that when students are getting education on how food is grown, when they're participating in school gardens and are able to eat and taste healthy, fresh foods, we're seeing them eat more fruits and vegetables. They're more willing to try new foods."

As of last year there were 214 school gardens spread among the county's 42 districts — not many, but still a 25 percent rise as compared to a year prior.

A common theme throughout the afternoon was a need for healthier options be present, affordable, and approachable.

"More often than not, 'availability' just refers to the existence of a product. But it also refers to affordability, the quality of the product — is it desirable or culturally appropriate?" Hamburger asked. "Does the consumer know how to use it?"

"Food affordability is more than just the cost of food — it's the time that it takes to cook food, the availability of storage space, time spent traveling to get your food if you're reliant on public transportation," adds Jillian Barber, a Sharp Health representative.

"Healthy food might just sit on a plate if it doesn't taste good, so we've got to get people with culinary backgrounds involved to show people they can enjoy good foods," Moss agreed.

"Over 45 million pounds of food were distributed last year,” said Kelcey Ellis of Feeding America San Diego. “That's still not closing the hunger gap. Any food that we purchase is held to a certain nutritional standard that's been vetted by our nutritional policy council. We actually just passed a donated food standard, and while we're not going to turn away donated food, we're encouraging healthier whole grain and low-sodium products."

Well, perhaps not quite.

"When we get soda donations,” said Shelly Hahne of San Diego Food Bank, “we tell the donor that we're going to dump the soda down the drain and recycle the can.” Sports and energy drinks, high-sugar beverages that aren't sodas, and ice cream are all on the way out at the region's two biggest food pantries.

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