Defining ‘diet fairness’ and modeling way forward for meals methods in neighborhoods

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Researchers are studying food systems in the Buckeye-Shaker, Buckeye-Woodhill, and Central neighborhoods of Cleveland

Although Cleveland is one of the largest cities in the country for urban agriculture and has one of the oldest coalitions in food policy, many Clevelanders struggle to get access to healthy foods such as fresh produce. But a team of researchers from Case Western Reserve University and two dozen community partners are studying the separation – and how low-income neighborhoods in northeast Ohio can get better access to nutritious, affordable food.

The study, conducted by the Swetland Center for Environmental Health at the Case Western Reserve School of Medicine, examines what is known as “food insecurity” or the lack of available food resources. Food insecure residents may not know where their next meal will come from or have the financial means to purchase adequate groceries.

The study, published this week in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, marks the culmination of a three-year project. The project combined scientists from the Case Western Reserve with researchers, leaders and activists from the community who provide perspectives that support their collaborative research.

The study focused on neighborhoods with a predominantly black population, including the Buckeye-Shaker neighborhoods in Cleveland, Buckeye-Woodhill, and Central. In these areas there are fewer shops selling fresh and healthy food and higher food insecurity.

“These quarters are historically overdone. We live in it. We see it every day, ”said Michelle B. Jackson, community researcher at the Swetland Center.

Researchers conducted community workshops to collect data from residents, elected officials, food retailers, and partner organizations including the Greater Cleveland Food Bank. One-on-one interviews with residents were also held, while researchers contributed data from their own personal experiences with food systems.

These different perspectives have influenced the development of system models that shed light on “feedback mechanisms” that identify the causes of food insecurity and its effects.

Darcy Freedman

“This work has given us a language to talk about the complexities of the food system in a way that will help you identify goals in order to bring the food system to fairness,” said Darcy Freedman, Swetland professor of environmental health sciences at the school of Medicine. “We were able to open the black box of inequalities in the food system by learning together.”

For example, building a new community garden will not only provide another resource for fresh vegetables and fruits, but it can also have unintended effects on property value and availability. Other external factors influencing feedback systems are neighborhood crises such as incarceration, policing and addiction; Household costs such as childcare and housing; Financing through state services; Neighborhood investment; and turnout.

The team identified food equity as a new goal to guide local food systems in historically separate neighborhoods. Nutritional justice is a state of freedom, agency, and dignity in the nutritional traditions that support the holistic health of communities. Researchers found that for a community to have a nutritionally balanced nutritional system, three key factors must be in place: economic opportunity, food security, and fair access to fresh and healthy food.

The food system models developed as part of this study provide decision-making tools for evaluating food systems and their impact on emergency food supplies, food retailing, public health outcomes, and more.

The study builds on previous research conducted during the university’s Future of Food in Your Neighborhood Study (foodNEST), which focused on the health, diet, and shopping habits of Cleveland and Columbus residents.

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