Why we can’t ignore food in health


Today in Slate, Heather Tirado Gilligan argues that food deserts are not really a problem. She also argues, using data from three studies, that introducing healthful food to low-income  communities makes no difference to health outcomes. I don’t entirely disagree. Parachuting a bunch of bananas into a low-income grocery store isn’t going to change the way people eat, or have a real impact on health outcomes. Making fresh, healthy food more physically accessible is just the first step. She overlooks the other steps involved in de-food-desertification; ensuring that the food is affordable, providing nutrition education and (as she touches on and thereafter ignores) teaching people with little time and little money how to cook quick, cheap and healthy meals. As Pearson et al argue, policies need to be developed to change cultural attitudes to food, rather than just food accessibility (1).

The way Gilligan writes about it seems as though she expects to just stick a few bulbs of fennel in a community that’s previously only had access to Doritos and Taco Bell and hope that it makes a difference. Of course it doesn’t! Fixing nutrition is a much more complex issue than I think Gilligan is acknowledging and it’s going to take a lot of time. For example, she notes that ‘Since 2004 there’s been a sharp spike in the number of programs like Soul Food that are aimed at reducing such health disparities by making fresh food more accessible to low-income people’ and that ‘Study after study has shown that the fresh-food push does nothing to improve the health of poor people, who continue to live markedly shorter and sicker lives than better-off Americans.’ It’s hard to argue against that – poorer people definitely do still have poorer health outcomes. But the data that she’s referring to is for only ten years in a nation of 314 million people, where the number of programs and locations where they have been available have been limited. It’s long enough to start getting some idea of outcomes, but I would argue, not long enough for concrete conclusions, especially when the aims of these programs are overwhelmingly long-term – it’s not possible to change a lifetime of eating habits overnight. Finally, I would also argue that if you look at what’s happened since 2010 when the Health Food Financing Initiative was introduced, it will give a much clearer idea of the impact of an increased number of programs. The same data problem persists though –  that at this stage, there are only three years of data to work with. It’s really too early to make the call that the Initiative is failing, especially when new and innovative programs are being developed every day.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that just as some food programs are not working so well, others are making a difference in the lives of those who have access to them. And while it’s hard to dispute Gilligan’s claim that the stress of poverty has a likely significant affect on health outcomes, it seems far too soon and very short sighted to disregard the importance of providing the means to improve the diets of low-income communities when aiming to reduce the burden of disease.

(1) Pearson T, Russell J, Campbell M J, Barker M E 2005, Do ‘food deserts’ influence fruit and vegetable consumption?—a cross-sectional study, Appetite 45(2): 195-197.



Strange variations: Ecological Footprints in two countries

Last week I started an online course, An Introduction to the U.S. Food System: Perspectives from Public Health which is being run by Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. It started out well. A lot of the introductory information was about things that I’m reasonably familiar with, through my studies or just general reading-for-interest, but there were also other elements that I didn’t know about, so it was nice to continue my learning.

One of the things that really fascinated me was taking the Ecological Footprint quiz. The coordinators suggested that we do this and respond to an overall class poll so we could see the wide range of resources that different students are using. They also suggested that we play around with the poll and explore how different living situations might produce different outcomes. Out of curiosity, I decided to compare my life here in the USA and my life in Australia.

This was my result for the USA:

Screen Shot 2014-02-03 at 2.44.15 PM

This was my result for Australia:

Screen Shot 2014-02-03 at 2.49.41 PM


Whaaaaat?! This seemed completely crazy to me. I really thought the outcomes would be very similar – my diet is very similar in both countries, our energy consumption is similar (although green options seemed more accessible in Sydney – possibly because I knew more about the electricity market at home), I use a car with the same very limited frequency, my purchasing habits and recycling/trash habits are much the same…even more strangely, I would typically fly further in a year in Australia than here!

I’m honestly having a lot of trouble figuring out this discrepancy. I’ve taken the quiz multiple times to make sure there wasn’t a glaring error. I’ve looked at it over and over. One difference I can see is that the Australian quiz is a lot more specific – for example, it asks what type of lightbulbs you use, how much your gas/electricity bills are per month etc. These aren’t options in the US version. Even so, I just can’t see any really compelling reason for the difference.

I’d be interested in what your thoughts are. I’d also be really interested to know what quiz results you get (and because it seems surprisingly relevant, what country you’re based in). You can take the quiz here.

A tragedy for the Great Barrier Reef

I wasn’t planning a post today, but I just wanted to take a moment to share this:

From 1 Million Women. Click through for source.

Overnight, permission was given to the North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation to dump three million tonnes of dredging sludge into the Great Barrier Reef. Three million tonnes.

I’d really encourage you all to email the PM Tony Abbott and the Environment Minister Greg Hunt to let them know that this is not ok. There are also petitions being run by GetUp!, the WWF and Greenpeace. You can find all the relevant links here.

It breaks my heart, as it should break everyone’s heart, that our values are in such a mess that we would put profit above protecting one of the most beautiful and fragile ecosystems in the world.

A book review: The Wind-Up Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi

I’m a firm believer in the power of fiction and film and their ability to shape the way we see the world around us now, as well as the possibilities for our future. I’ve mentioned before my love of late 80s/ early 90s kids films and TV shows about the environment (Captain Planet! Fern Gully! Widget the World Watcher!) and I do wonder if they have in some way had an impact on the person I’ve become. Plus, I still watch Princess Mononoke and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind at least once a year…

I’ve read some excellent environmental/dystopian fiction over the last few years as well, and I thought that it might be interesting to share some reviews and recommendations with you guys. Some of them have absolutely blown me away with their detail and with their uncanny similarities to the path we seem to be heading down, and one of those is The Wind-Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi.

The Wind-Up Girl is set in Thailand in the 23rd century. It’s the future, but not the one we’ve hoped for. ‘Calorie companies’, which are clearly representative of Big Ag monoliths such as Monsanto and Du Pont have undertaken a huge range of genetic modifications that have caused the decimation of food supplies and forests. Climate change has led to dramatic sea level rises, with Bangkok protected by huge levees and pumps – the only thing preventing the entire city being flooded. With no more petroleum and limited supplies of other fossil fuels, transport other than walking or cycling is largely reserved for the wealthy, and the energy that powers daily life is largely methane based (from compacted trash), with some input from genetically modified elephants, ‘megodonts’ who tighten large, high-power springs. As I say, it’s not the future we’ve hoped for.

The novel follows five main characters; Anderson Lake, an expat calorie company representative from Des Moines under cover as a manufacturer of the high powered springs, while seeking out a hidden Thai seedbank; Emiko, a wind-up girl from Japan, a genetically modified ‘New Person’ bred to serve, and routinely abused by her masters; Hock Seng, an ageing former merchant and refugee from a Malaysia destroyed by ‘Green Headband’ militants; and two officers of the Environment Ministry, an organisation that ostensibly protects Thailand from the international calorie companies, but which has become hopelessly corrupt. The world that they inhabit is hot, sweaty and fraught with danger. Starvation is a real risk through the production of sterile crops that are susceptible to ‘genehack’ disease. Crop disease can easily spread to humans, and then from person to person, sweeping across entire countries in plagues. Life in the 23rd century, is connected to some very tenuous threads.

I don’t want to tell you the detail of the story because I want you to read it! What I will tell you though is that Bacigalupi does an incredible job of seamlessly weaving a strong and often poignant narrative with concerns for our environmental future, easily avoiding the potential pitfall of proselytising to his readers. As it is, the story, as well as the scene, simply places a mirror to our current world and our current values and it shocks us. As well it should.

I hope you get the chance to read this. In the meantime, does anyone have any other recommendations for good fiction about the environment/ climate change/ food etc? I finished Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy recently and loved it, so this is definitely an area I’d like to read more in.

A little note of positivity

It’s funny how things sometimes come together. Yesterday I saw both the following infographic and this article from NPR.

Source: APHA. Click through for more.

I think there’s a lovely symmetry between the two – an acknowledgement of the worrying state that we’re still in now, but with a hopeful twist: real change is starting to happen. There are so many organisations and individuals that are working to alter the food landscape by reconnecting farmers with consumers, increasing the availability of healthful food in disadvantaged communities and educating the public on food, health and the environment.

The best bit is that some of this work is already starting to show benefits. For example, in Australia, community and research interventions in remote indigenous communities have shown significant reductions in the incidence of hypercholesterolemia and other cardiovascular disease risk factors, and improvements in child health (1, 2).  In the Bronx, the Rx Fruit and Vegetable program is making healthy food affordable and having an impact on the lives of children – which is important to ensuring a healthy and sustainable food future. And of course, as the first article I linked to mentions, simple conversions to the layout and produce in corner stores are starting to make a world of difference in East Los Angeles Latino communities. These three examples represent just a fraction of the changes that are happening in the U.S and Australia alone.

It’s so easy to feel overwhelmed by statistics like ‘Obesity has tripled among kids and teens in the past 30 years’, or that 8.3 percent of the US population is diabetic (with 90-95 percent being type 2 diabetes). The existence of initiatives like these gives me hope though, because people can and are making a real difference.

1.  Rowley G, Su Q, Cincotta M, Skinner M, Pindan B, White G A, O’Dea K 2001, Improvements in circulation cholesterol, antioxidants, and homocysteine after dietary intervention in an Australian Aboriginal community, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 74:442-8.
2. Jones R, Smith F 2006, Are there health benefits from improving basic nutrition in a remote Aboriginal Community?, Australian Family Physician, 35 (6): 453-4.



60 Minutes: When the media misinforms

You would think, that with a general scientific consensus on the anthropogenic nature of climate change, politicians, journalists, business leaders and the like would generally be positive and encouraging of any steps to mitigate out impact on GHG emissions. You would think that, because you would hope that we’d all be aiming for a better future for ourselves and our children and our children’s children. You would think that people would want to support efforts to better ourselves, rather than sitting back and doing nothing.

You would think that, but you would be wrong.

A screenshot from last night’s program.

I was relieved to read this piece by Will Oremus in Slate and this piece by Joe Romm and Emily Atkin on ThinkProgress today. Unfortunately, the readership of Slate and ThinkProgress combined versus the viewership of 60 Minutes is not really comparable and there are a going to be a lot of frustratingly misinformed people in the US today.

Misinforming the public, and cherry-picking the negatives as 60 Minutes did is concerning and curious. What I struggle to understand is why? Why would you consciously ignore the vast majority of Robert Rapier’s comments and only publicise those which damage the reputation of the cleantech industry? Why would you ignore the huge progress that cleantech has made in the last year, and the promise that it holds for the years ahead? Does CBS/ 60 Minutes have some vested interest in the traditional energy sector?

I can’t pretend that I understand the reasons, but I am angry that this happened. This is not reporting, this is not journalism, this is fantasy. And it is a fantasy that could damage the cleantech industry, by reducing investment in a supposedly failing, but actually booming industry. We need more money invested into cleantech research. We need it to help us reduce emissions and ensure the future of the planet, but the US also needs it if they want to continue to compete on the same playing field as China. China and the US’s industrial competition is not my battle, but I can’t help but feel that in ten years time, the US will suddenly realise that they have been left behind – and that misleading pieces like that aired last night were part of the reason.

West Virginia: an environmental health crisis

When I tell people that I hold a MSc in Environmental Health, about 80% of people will look blank for a moment before going ‘Errr…so what’s that?’ It’s a completely legitimate question. It’s not a well known area and its name can be a bit confusing (‘so, you study the health of the environment…right?’).

Last week in West Virginia is almost a perfect example of environmental (un)health and why I studied what I did. Environmental health is (Cliffs Notes version) the study of how our environment effects our health. When 7,500 gallons of 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol (MCHM) leak into the local water supply, every facet of health is going to be affected.

As you’ve no doubt read, this is what happened in West Virginia last Thursday. Since then, around 300,000 residents have been without a reliable water supply. Drinking water has been shipped in, but with tap water only fit for flushing toilets, and bottled water at a premium, the situation still leaves 300,000 people with: difficulty preparing and cooking food, limited hygiene (hand washing, showering etc. with tap water is out), no laundry facilities, no easy way of cleaning cooking utensils and so on. It’s also meant closed schools, shops, restaurants and government departments. It’s an environmental health crisis.

Five days later, officials are now saying that the water seems to be improving. That’s great news. But it doesn’t make up for the fact that this shouldn’t have happened in the first place – chemicals like MCHM shouldn’t be stored at facilities described as ‘ageing’ and ‘vintage’. It also doesn’t make up for the fact that while the leak was discovered on Thursday morning, it wasn’t announced to the public until Thursday evening. Both Freedom Industries (owner of the leaking storage tank) and the West Virginia American Water Co. should be fined out of existence for allowing a lapse of this magnitude to occur.

I’ve seen a lot of comments on articles about the incident blaming the residents for the situation. The general attitude seems to be ‘well, you wanted mining, now you can reap the consequences.’ The lack of empathy is breathtaking. Coal mining is these people’s livelihoods. Many of these people don’t have the education or the skills to do anything else. Of course they’re pro-mining. How else are they going to put food on the table? Demonising the victims isn’t going to solve the problems. What is needed is strong regulation, adequate consequences for polluters and the creation of new, cleaner energy jobs. Sadly, that’s going to take a lot more effort than finger pointing and/or sweeping the whole issue under the rug and pretending it never happened.

2014: Year of Family Farming

Last week, I recapped 2013, noting that in general, it wasn’t a great year for issues around food and the environment. I also mentioned a few hopeful things for the year ahead, but what I decided to leave for a post of its own was the United Nation’s declaration of 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming.

The stated aims of the IYFF are:

‘to raise the profile of family farming and smallholder farming by focusing world attention on its significant role in eradicating hunger and poverty, providing food security and nutrition, improving livelihoods, managing natural resources, protecting the environment, and achieving sustainable development, in particular in rural areas.’

This is so significant, especially in the context of increasingly globalised and monoculturised (let’s just pretend that’s a word for a moment) agriculture. Increasingly Big Ag is buying up land in developing countries, damaging local ecosystems, reducing food security and eliminating traditional food cultures. I wrote extensively about this last year in a couple of posts, and if you’re really interested, I’d recommend reading Raj Patel’s Stuffed and Starved. 

Shifting the focus of food from our industrialised system to the more traditional smallholder model is important for all parts of the world though, not just for developing nations. The reasons are different, but the significance is not. So, how is this relevant to us in the ‘global north’?

1) Nutrition

I know I bang on about this a lot. But I really do think that if we devoted a bit more space to family farms that grew a variety of crops, and perhaps even bred some animals, we’d have a whole lot less HFCS and other processed rubbish, and a whole lot more real, fresh food. Maybe that’s really naive of me, but it couldn’t hurt to try.

2) Connection to food and place

It’s so easy these days to lose sight of the fact that food isn’t just conjured up by the magic supermarket fairy. I once read an article about kids who thought that yoghurt grew on trees ( no, really). This alone seems like as good a reason as any to start engaging communities with the process of growing and producing food. I honestly believe that every single child should have the opportunity to spend some time in a vegetable garden, getting their fingers grubby and watching plants grow. Whether that be in their backyard, at their school, in a community garden doesn’t matter. But it’s something that I think is absolutely essential.

3) Land management 

I’ve linked to this report before and I’ll link to it again. Monoculture cropping is destroying valuable fertile farmland. It’s also destroying much of the Gulf of Mexico, literally suffocating the ecosystem. Greater variety in planting means less need for fertiliser, and less erosion. Even diversifying just a portion of each of the huge monoculture farms in the USA could make a difference.

And so, while the IYFF is most relevant to developing nations, where people often rely on family farming for their most basic nutritional needs, it also needs to be taken seriously in other wealthier countries. Unfortunately, I just don’t think it’s going to mesh too well with the Big Ag bottom line.

2013 in review

First of all, Happy New Year! I hope that 2014 is a great year for you – and for the environment!

2013 was in a lot of ways, a depressing year in food and the environment. The repeal of climate change legislation in Australia, the removal of SNAP from the Farm Bill in the US, continued development of the tar sands in Canada. And all the while, climate change has, if anything, accelerated and inequalities in our food systems continue to be pronounced.

At the risk of being repetitive (there are quite a few year-that-was recaps around at the moment), I thought I’d do a quick run through of my 3-most-important-things-of-2013.

1) The election of the Abbott Government in Australia

I don’t think that there’s too much more that I need to add on top of this post. Truly. I’ll explode if I think about this too frequently.

2) The EU ban on neonicotinoids

Back in January I wrote about a petition for the EU to ban the use of pesticides that had been shown to cause dramatic declines in bee populations. In May, the EU enacted a two year moratorium on the use of neonicotinoids. Rare good environmental (and food) news from 2013!

4) 97%: The Consensus Project

In 2013, the results of a project analysing climate change literature from the past 21 years were released. These results found that 97.1% of the papers endorsed the science of anthropogenic climate change. 98.4% of the scientists who authored the papers also endorsed the science. The findings of the study were another huge step in dismantling the credibility of climate change ‘denialists.’ See theconsensusproject.com for more.

Of course, there were other big happenings in 2013, but these are the ones that most struck me. I would like to think that the news will be a little brighter in 2014, and I’ll admit that I’m tentatively hopeful. While Australia looks like going to hell in a handbasket, President Obama actually rolled out a climate plan in June, and while there are still huge issues around Keystone XL and other fracking projects, this is at least a step in the right direction. China is making leaps and bounds in the development of thorium reactors, looking at how these might be a viable alternative energy source to reduce their dependency on coal and traditional uranium nuclear. If they can take this further, and if the rest of the world is on board, this could be a fantastic stop-gap measure to reduce GHG emissions while battery technologies for wind and solar power are improved. Big Food is fighting against GMO labelling laws, but the fight will continue into this year, hopefully with gains by those who support a truthful food future.

Here’s to you, 2014.

A week of infographics: Day 5

Click to link through and embiggen

I love this infographic too (sensing a theme here?). There’s definitely something to the concerns that the world will struggle to sustain its current population of just over 7 billion people, but it’s nice to know that all 7 billion can be fed, at least theoretically.

I hope that you’ve enjoyed this week’s infographics. I’ll aim to be back to a more regular posting schedule next week.