Food Systems & Obesity Prevention
Amy Myers: Today we're talking about food systems and obesity prevention. Hello, I'm Amy Myers, and welcome to Farm and Family. We have with us Dr. Elizabeth Canales, Assistant Professor in the Agricultural Economics Department at Mississippi State University.
Amy: Dr. Canales, can you clarify exactly what a “food system” is?
Elizabeth Canales: Thanks, for having me, Amy. When we talk about food systems, we’re talking about the overall journey of the foods we eat, from the farm, to our fork. It includes everything like growing, processing, distribution, preparation, and even where we buy our food. And when we talk about how food systems relate to obesity, we want to find out how the presence - or lack of certain foods - can affect someone’s diet. We’re also interested in learning if people have access to healthy foods, what type of stores they have access to, based on where they live, what stores’ prices are, and how those foods - both healthy and unhealthy – are promoted.
Amy Myers: Interesting, so food systems refer to all the steps taken, to get food on our plates. So, how do food systems relate to obesity?
Elizabeth Canales: Well, we do know that food systems shape what we call a community’s “food environment.” And in many ways, this affects people’s consumption patterns. For example, our current food system supplies a large variety of products poor in nutrients, but dense in energy. Things like fast food, candy bars, potato chips, soft drinks, etc. These products are convenient and easy to “grab and go.” They are also relatively inexpensive and very heavily marketed. These are the types of products we commonly find in gas stations and convenience stores that people most frequently visit, especially people who have limited access to transportation. Research has shown there is a definite connection between the obesity rate and the concentration of fast-food outlets and corner stores in certain areas. So, all this contributes to unhealthy diets, because we will eat what is available and affordable to us.
Amy Myers: So how can we improve our foods systems, to promote healthier eating and address obesity problems?
Elizabeth Canales: Well ultimately, an individual person’s diet comes down to their own choices. But, the local food environment can affect food and beverage options. Increasing the availability and affordability of healthy foods is very important. A first step is to understand the food environment. For example, as part of a project here at Mississippi State, we are conducting a retail nutritional assessment in counties around the Mississippi Delta. The purpose is to understand what kind of stores people have access to, what kinds of products are stocked at those stores, and, specifically, the prices of healthy food options, because we know affordability is such a key factor. Improving the nutrition environment then requires working within the food supply chain to promote the offering of health options. But this is only one step! We also need to increase the demand for healthy foods through education and promotion, especially of fruits and vegetables.
Amy Myers: Of course, many folks say healthier foods are more expensive, and they can’t afford them. What do you say to that?
Elizabeth Canales: Affordability is indeed a key issue, particularly for lower income households. Prices are important in people’s food choices, and sometimes lower prices take precedence over health – especially in some areas here in Mississippi, where healthy options are limited, and more expensive. But, there are strategies to eat healthy on a budget. For example, using coupons. And, in areas with limited fresh options, frozen or canned fruit and vegetables are a good way to go.
Amy Myers: What can we do ourselves, to improve community food environments, and combat obesity?
Elizabeth Canales: The very best thing is to lead by example. We can choose healthier options every time we buy and prepare food. We can also support nutrition educational efforts and any local initiatives that increase the supply of fresh produce like local farmers’ markets, community gardens, and new grocery stores. And lastly, advocating for improved access to transportation, to reach locations that offer healthy foods by raising awareness of the connections between access to transportation, access to food, and healthier living. All of this will help include food systems as part of our community planning and public conversations.
Amy Myers: Where can someone learn more about this topic?
Elizabeth Canales: People can “Google” Mississippi State University Extension, and look under tabs like, “Community” or “Food and Health”. The Centers for Disease Control website, cdc.gov, also offers a wealth of information and resources. If you go to their website, search for terms like “food environment resources,” or “healthy places”.
Amy Myers: Today, we’re speaking with Dr. Elizabeth Canales, Assistant Professor at Mississippi State University. I'm Amy Myers, and this has been Farm and Family. Have a great day!