Healthy Foods Contribute to Healthy Lives

March 21, 2013 5:16 PM

Recently four area hospitals released the results of a community health needs assessment in launching  From this data, "organizers hope that the website will encourage visitors to find solutions to existing health needs."  In order to begin that process, we must first understand where we are as a community. 

There are some well-publicized figures that demonstrate areas of great concern:

• About one-half of our students in MMSD are eligible for Free or Reduced Lunch; 86.1% of our African-American students are eligible.
• 36.9% of African Americans in Dane County are at or below the poverty line; compared to 9.3% of White, non-Hispanics.

We know that there are families in Madison that struggle to obtain not only a nutritiously adequate meal, but enough food in general.  I recently heard an anecdote about a child at one of our community centers who said the only meal he eats during the day is the one provided by the center.  It is well documented that if kids are not getting adequate food and nutrition, they will fall behind in school.  Considering a child of color is four times more likely to be born into poverty than their white peers, this is of significant impact on the achievement gap. 

Here are some eye-opening statistics that the community health needs assessment pointed to as areas of concern:

• Hospitalization rate due to long-term complications of diabetes
o 6.6 hospitalizations/10,000 population (18+ years old)
• Hospitalization rate due to diabetes
o 11.3 hospitalizations/10,000 population (18+ years old)

Most concerning though,

• Death rate due to diabetes by race/ethnicity
o Overall:  13.1 deaths/100,000 population (18+ years old)
o White: 12.6 deaths/100,000 population (18+ years old)
o Black: 41.3 deaths/100,000 population (18+ years old)

Those who are in poverty rely, often solely, on food assistance programs, namely SNAP.  One alarming indicators of the deficit in access to nutritious food  is the number of SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) certified stores per 1,000 population – in Dane County less than .6% per thousand.).  Wisconsin also has the second lowest average for the monthly assistance provided from our food assistance program per person in the country.  With few accessible, healthy, and affordable choices to redeem food assistance for many families, the choice is often made in favor of what is affordable rather than what is healthy.  

Madison is one of the most highly educated cities in this country, so we should be well aware of the connection between diet and health and diet and education.  We are also blessed with one of the richest agricultural regions in the world.  Given that fresh produce begins losing its nutritional value almost immediately after harvest, it is in our best interest to have our regionally produced food consumed and processed locally. 

As a community, we must get creative to provide healthy, affordable meals to those who need it the most.  There are some great examples of success.  The Madison Freshmobile, our network of farmers' markets, and the work of our local food banks are just a few.

There are other great examples outside of Madison.  There are extremely successful incentive programs, offering a dollar-for-dollar match of food assistance at farmers' markets; there are communities "prescribing" fruits and vegetables; there are efforts to curb fast-food and sugar-based beverages.  Here in Madison, there is much to be done.  The work that remains is a shared responsibility between our school districts, government, and other community providers.  It is time that all of us get serious about food and nutrition.

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