OHSU Invent- a- thon, Health Disparity Prize winners, team CommuNutri discusses patient empowerment and food inaccessibility.

Video experts comprise of some of CommuNutri founders:

  • Carl Osborne | Mobile Application Developer and EHR Consultant

  • Stephanie Cruz, PhD | Medical Anthropologist and Postdoctoral Researcher

  • Daniela Ruiz | Undergraduate Student at Reed College

  • Samuel Tassi Yunga, M.D, Ph.D | Biomedical Scientist, Oregon Health & Science University

  • Nicole Tjota, MBA, MFA | Product Manager

To learn more about OHSU’s Invent-a-thon and other health disparities solutions click here.

Nutrition and health disparities have become increasingly familiar terms in public discourse. If you are not familiar with what they mean, well, the answer is pretty simple. Nutritional disparities refer to preventable differences in dietary patterns, intake, and behaviors among different segments of the population, often leading to poorer dietary quality and unequal burdens of disease incidence, mortality, morbidity, and opportunities or, in other words, health disparities. Given the intimate link between these two phenomena, some scholars present that the key to curbing health disparities lies in our ability to understand how diet and nutrition lead to these disparities.

         A commonly cited explanation for the existence of huge nutritional disparities across different socioeconomic groups is the spatial difference in access to stores selling nutritious food. As of 2009, approximately 23.5 million people, about 8.4% of the U.S. population, lived in food deserts or rather areas located more than a mile from stores selling healthy and nutritious food. This figure rose to roughly 39 million people by 2015. Notably, these estimates, while already startling, are highly misrepresented and underestimated, primarily because of how the NAICS categorizes retail outlets. According to the NAICS’s standards, small corner groceries are usually placed in the same category as supermarket chains like Whole Foods and Safeway, even though small corner grocery stores, more often than not, only sell package foods.  On considering this, it’s not too far-fetched to assume that the actual extent of the food desert problem is much bigger than we think. As a matter of fact, the issue of food access has only been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic as stores have cut back on hours and public transportation has been reduced.

         In essence, food deserts are a prime example of the link between racial injustice and food access. As reports indicate, years of structural racism and stereotypes about African Americans has made it significantly harder for them to access supermarkets.  According to CNN,  African Americans are half as likely, and Hispanics a third less likely to have access to chain supermarkets. To contextualize the problem even further, about 17.7% of predominantly black neighborhoods don’t have access to supermarkets in comparison to 7.6% of predominantly white neighborhoods. We’d hope that this is just a mere coincidence, but sadly it’s not. Over the years, major chain supermarkets have been practicing supermarket redlining. In particular, they have often failed to locate their stores in low-income neighborhoods or inner cities and, in so doing, exacerbated the food access problem instead of curbing it. Besides, this trend highlights the lack of cultural competency around food that supports disease prevention for diverse people. Therefore, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the black community exhibits a higher burden of disease than the white community.

         With this in mind, it is clear that achieving racial justice is integral to the fight for health and nutritional equity. This demands the participation of all of us. So if you reside in a food desert, become an active participant in the fight for nutritional equity by educating those around you on the different dimensions of nutritional inequality and what it means for their health and well-being. Work together in coming up with potential solutions like growing your own foods or calling on local retailers to sell healthier alternatives at affordable prices. In addition, seek out policymakers like state legislators and city council members and make your concerns and ideas known to them. After all, change begins with you, and thus it’s only through self-advocacy can we inspire others to fight for us.