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Food insecurity was already prevalent across much of the U.S. before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Today, the situation is much more dire: According to estimates from Feeding America, a non-profit organization, 1 in 6 Americans will likely face hunger as a direct result of the pandemic.

What’s more, even those with plenty of access to food products may not be getting their nutritional needs met, especially in the wake of social distancing mandates. Programs that connect people, such as farmers’ markets and community gardens, are effectively on hold throughout much of the U.S. Yet communities can still promote nutrition education and the importance of food access in public spaces even during these challenging times.

For example, various park and recreation agencies have become makeshift community nutrition hubs, serving the needs of low-income residents. Depending on community size and financial support offered, the nation’s park and recreation agencies can provide a variety of services in the name of public health and healthy food access.

Communities must band together to emphasize the importance of fresh, local food access for the sake of both public and planetary health.

At nutrition hubs, agents can screen for food insecurity and help clients apply for SNAP or WIC benefits, as appropriate, as well as offer nutrition literacy resources to help encourage healthy decision making. Community spaces such as recreation centers can also play host to food banks and farmers’ markets.

As communities of all sizes face an uncertain future, nutrition education is more important than ever. Here’s how communities can better promote nutrition education within our public spaces.

The Fundamentals of Nutrition

Even before the inception of the original Food Guide pyramid in the early 1990s, nutrition education was a fundamental part of the public school experience.

Yet that education may not be enough to foster any sort of overarching change, in regards to diet. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that “U.S. students receive less than 8 hours of required nutrition education each school year, far below the 40 to 50 hours that are needed to affect behavior change.”

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To choose the right diet for one’s health, one must be educated on what balanced nutrition looks like, as well as what to avoid. For starters, nutrition education programs should steer those facing food insecurity away from fad diets, which may provide short-term results but with long-term health consequences. Instead, healthy eating habits are built on the foundation of a mindful nutrition plan, taking individual lifestyle, needs, and personal taste into account.

Interestingly, the global pandemic may provide the perfect opportunity to prioritize nutrition education on a large scale. Community leaders can help bridge the gaps by offering free online courses on topics such as nutrition education, the fundamentals of cooking at home, and more. And as community and recreation centers begin to open up once again, these integral community spaces can be creatively utilized in the name of nutrition education.

Locally Sourced Food as a Community-Building Tool

And make no mistake — creativity is key when adapting to the myriad challenges created by COVID. Even as individuals are physically distanced, it’s still possible to build community while also improving public health. Food connects people from all walks of life, despite physical distance, and it’s important to learn where that food comes from.

Generally speaking, locally grown food is healthier than food shipped over long distances, which are often highly processed. What’s more, small-scale farmers and food producers have a closer connection to the natural world when compared to big corporations. The reality is that most big food corporations don’t consider public health at all, as the primary goal is profit rather than providing nutrition and sustenance.

Within nutrition education programs, it’s therefore crucial that consumers understand how large corporations cut corners and comprise the nutritional content of myriad products. For instance, processed foods may contain harmful additives such as high-fructose corn syrup, chemically sourced food dyes, and sodium nitrate.

And in discount grocery stores across the nation, milk and dairy products are typically sourced via factory farming, wherein animals are raised and slaughtered in an unhealthy environment.

Healthier Communities for a Healthier Planet

The harmful effects of large-scale food production span well beyond humans and animals, however; the health of the Earth itself is also in jeopardy. Big Agriculture, in fact, is helping to perpetuate climate change rather than curb it. Deforestation, along with air, ground, and water pollution are the inevitable side effects of large-scale factory farming.

In response, communities must band together to emphasize the importance of fresh, local food access for the sake of both public and planetary health. But although farmers’ markets and educational programs within public schools are helping to shape healthier communities, access alone is not enough.

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In every community, especially low-income areas, nutrition education must be expanded to the extent that individual behaviors are fundamentally altered. In the name of public health, community spaces should be transformed into nutrition hubs, wherein education and outreach are the primary goals.

Jori Hamilton