AgCenter researchers seek solutions to structural inequality in food advertising, accessibility

(08/16/22) BATON ROUGE, La. — Heathy eating is a challenge for many Americans even in low inflationary times, but for African Americans, additional obstacles pile on to make it especially burdensome.

An LSU AgCenter researcher recently conducted a study demonstrating that little research has addressed the cycle of structural inequality leading to disparities in obesity and food insecurity among African Americans — but he and his colleagues are working on solutions.

Matt Greene, an assistant professor in the School of Nutrition and Food Sciences, spearheaded a study that was published earlier this year by Cambridge University Press, which looked at what types of nutritional interventions were most effective at remedying or at least lessening the effects of structural inequality in underserved communities. This was the first literature review to describe nutrition interventions aimed at addressing the issue among African Americans and is one of only 30 studies published since 1991 to do so.

“There really hadn’t been a lot published that specifically looked at what’s been done to address structural racism through nutrition programs, so this was sort of a first step,” Greene said. “It’s important for us here in Louisiana because we have the third-highest percentage of African American residents of any state.”

According to national data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, non-Hispanic Black adults had the highest age-adjusted rate of obesity at 49.9%. In Louisiana, which ranks sixth nationwide in overall obesity, the percentage is 47.1 %, according to America’s Health Rankings.

Greene’s research took more than a year to conclude, somewhat due to the lack of previous studies, but the findings were hard to deny.

“My research was a little bit of sociology and a little bit of nutrition, and in sociology there’s something called the fundamental cause theory, which basically says that differences in income and access to education is a fundamental or underlying cause of differences in health status,” he said.

When discussing solutions, Greene said the interventions he found mostly concerned the final steps to the process of a healthier lifestyle without addressing root causes and possible preventative measures.

“They taught people how to eat better, but few of them addressed those underlying socioeconomic disparities,” he said. “We wanted to look at things like providing education, reducing deterrents to healthy eating like taxing sugary beverages, providing more money for fruits and vegetables and even things like job training programs.”

Ruthie Losavio, communications coordinator for the LSU AgCenter Healthy Communities program, said education is a fundamental necessity to get the ball rolling on living a healthier lifestyle, but even that is a difficult proposition when confronted with structural systems that don’t provide underserved communities many options. She said that’s where the AgCenter’s Healthy Communities initiative can help.

“If those options don’t exist, you can have all of the knowledge in the world but you can’t put it into practice,” she said. “Healthy Communities is really about meeting the community where they are and having an open dialogue with them about the issues they’re facing, what they see as barriers within their communities and what are possible, sustainable solutions.”

Losavio recognizes that in many cases, people know what foods are healthier for them, but have little choice in what they serve their families, either due to local food availability or financial and time restrictions.

“People know how to eat. But in a lot of these areas there’s no access to healthy foods. There are no farmers’ markets or grocery stores in these communities,” she said. “So, when we tell them to eat more of those healthier options, they may not have that choice.”

One potential breakthrough AgCenter extension staff have been working on is the Geaux Shop Healthy program, which provides boots on the ground in communities where the agents know grocery store owners and many of the customers. The idea is to not only stock healthier options, but to flip the marketing script by promoting healthful options that are also convenient, affordable and delicious.

“We know that marketing influences what people choose to purchase, and new research showsthat SNAP-authorized stores in Louisiana tend to market products like sugar-sweetened beverages, chips and candy more prominently than nutritious products like fruits and vegetables,” Losavio said. “We want to give store owners tools to market healthful products in the same way so that customers know they have options regardless of their circumstances.”

Denise Holston, assistant professor in the School of Nutrition and Food Sciences, and Greene’s graduate professor at the time of his study, said it’s incumbent upon nutritionists to design and implement interventions to address constantly erected barriers in underserved communities.

“In addition to high food prices, many folks simply don’t have transportation, or they may have sidewalks that aren’t conducive to those with mobility issues,” she said.

Holston, the leader of the AgCenter Healthy Communities initiative, said it’s important to make a shopping list, search out sales and even involve children in the process so that they have buy-in, and the food purchased isn’t wasted. But for those in more dire financial straits, there are additional options.

“For those that are most vulnerable, we have worked with food pantries and food banks on nutrition standards,” she said. “In addition, we try to provide tools and resources local leaders need for things like community gardens where they can harvest and give fresh fruits and vegetables to their neighbors.”

Another arrow in the Healthy Communities quiver is working with local growers and educating the public about the benefits of SNAP match programs at farmers markets, like the one in St. Helena Parish.

“That way, their clientele and community members can have increased purchasing power through the SNAP match program as well as support the local farmers,” she said.

Greene said while his study focuses a lens on a disheartening topic, he believes in the work and dedication of AgCenter extension agents.

“We are extremely lucky to have very motivated extension agents who are working to address these inequalities in their communities,” he said. “We hope this work is only a first step.”

Back to School Jam.

Burnell Muse, an agriculture and natural resources agent with the Southern University Ag Center, distributes tokens for SNAP customers at the St. Helena Farmers Market during a back-to-school event in Greensburg. The market offers a SNAP match program, which provides $3 in free tokens for every $1 spent on eligible foods like fresh produce using SNAP benefits. Photo by Ruthie Losavio/LSU AgCenter.

Dougs Market display.

Doug’s Market in Tallulah was one of the AgCenter’s first healthy retail partner stores. Pictured is owner Doug Curtis posing in front of a healthy checkout aisle in 2019. The AgCenter has since used lessons learned from initial partnerships and current research to develop its own healthy retail program called Geaux Shop Healthy that is tailored to Louisiana stores and customers. LSU AgCenter file photo by Karol Osborne

SNAP Match Celebration.

Cryer’s Family Produce, a vendor at the St. Helena Farmers Market, offers a wide variety of fresh fruit and vegetables year-round. The Cryer family has been growing and selling produce for more than 100 years. Photo by Ruthie Losavio/LSU AgCenter

8/16/2022 3:39:20 PM
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