Food and Agriculture

We need to fix our broken food system—and science can help us do it. UCS food experts highlight solutions to ensure that every American has access to healthy, green, fair, affordable food.

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Latest Food and Agriculture Posts

Corn Belt Farmers Managing Weather-Related Risks Through Greater Soil Stewardship

Gabrielle Roesch-McNally, Ph.D. Sustainable Agriculture and Sociology, , UCS

Spring planting season in the Corn Belt reminds those of us living in the region that soil erosion is still a serious concern as we gear up for another year of intensive corn and soybean cultivation. For example, the Environmental Working Group, with the Iowa Daily Erosion Project, estimate that millions of acres of Iowa farmland are losing dangerous amounts of soil through wind and water erosion at levels far exceeding the so-called tolerable rate of soil loss (5 tons per acre). This has serious impacts on water quality via sedimentation and carries an economic cost to farmers and to society. Read more >

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Congress Can Help Prevent Diabetes with Healthy School Lunches

, senior analyst, Food and Environment

From Freddie Gray to the Flint drinking water crisis, the reality of historic and systemic racial inequality in America is making headlines. Communities of color and low-income communities also face deep-rooted inequities in our food system, including unequal access to healthy foods. Cutting school lunches for millions of low-income kids would only exacerbate this inequality, but Congress seems poised to do just that.

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This Earth Day, Four Reasons to Bring Food and Farms to the Table

, agroecologist

For me, the thought of Earth Day at first conjures up visions of the great outdoors: teeming rainforests, rushing waterways, golden valleys, golden eagles, great pandas, and so on. As a child of the 80s, while the special day was just in its early teens, I listened avidly to conversations about planting trees, saving water, turning out lights, recycling, protecting parks, and not being a litterbug. Read more >

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What You Get When You Vote With Your Dollar: The Case of Organic Wheat

Steven Rosenzweig, Ph.D. student, , UCS

If you buy organic food with the intention of catalyzing change in agriculture, it may be paying off. To address the wide gap between supply and demand, the nation’s largest flour producer Ardent Mills announced an initiative at the end of last year to double US organic wheat acreage by 2019 – a plan that could encourage a shift toward organic agriculture on hundreds of thousands of acres of American farmland. Read more >

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Food Access and Diabetes Rates in Communities of Color: Connecting the Dots

, food systems & health analyst

Earlier this month, the World Health Organization issued a call to action on diabetes—highlighting the need to prevent this devastating and costly metabolic disease.  The Union of Concerned Scientists has also been focusing on preventing diabetes—but by fixing our broken food system.

Food access, diabetes, and race

What does food have to do with diabetes? Diets high in sugar, salt, and fat—and low in fiber, vitamins, and minerals, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains—increase the risk for Type 2 diabetes. Eating a healthy diet isn’t as simple as just going to the store and buying healthy food. But what people eat in this country is largely dependent on their access to vari­ous foods. Food access is complex, and can include the physi­cal environment (geographic proximity, transportation to food retailers, and availability of healthy food); the economic environment (affordabili­ty of healthy food); and the sociocultural environment (cultural taste preferences). Race and income are highly correlated with healthy food access—and according to our new study—diabetes rates.

Consequences of unequal food access

Our latest report, “The Devastating Consequences of Unequal Food Access: The Role of Race and Income in Diabetes” shows that across all US counties, living near healthy food retailers is associated with lower diabetes rates. And the impact of healthy food on diabetes rates is even more pronounced in counties with above average populations of color. This is extremely significant given that communities of color are disproportionately affected by this disease. Native Americans (16.1%), African Americans (13.2%) and Latinos (12.9%) are nearly twice as likely as whites (7.6%) to have diabetes.

Food access and diabetes rates by county racial and economic composition

To estimate the relationship between food access and diabetes rates, we examined one kind of access to healthy food—geographic proximity. We looked at county-level data on retail food stores by county racial and economic composition. Counties were categorized as having either higher-than-average percentages of residents of color or lower-than-average percentages of residents of color and higher incomes or lower incomes.

We defined “healthy food retailers” as grocery stores, supercenters, farmers markets, and specialized food stores—all of which offer fresh and less-processed foods. “Unhealthy food retailers” were defined as fast food restaurants and convenience stores, which offer a more limited selection of food centered on highly processed convenience items. We compared access to healthy and unhealthy food retailers by county racial and economic composition and then we estimated the impact of this access on diabetes rates for each of the groups using linear regression models. Overall, our study found:

  • Access, race, and income. Counties with higher-than-average percentages of residents of color have less healthy food retailers and more unhealthy food retailers. Lower-income counties had more unhealthy food retailers than higher-income counties.
  • Healthy food access and diabetes rates. Greater access to healthy food is associated with lower diabetes rates. Across all counties, having an additional healthy food retailer per 1,000 people is associated with a 0.52 percentage point decrease in a county’s diabetes rate. This translates to nearly 175,000 fewer people with diabetes across the US.
  • fa-healthy-equity-fig-1-thumb

    Fig. 1. (Click for full graphic.)

    Proximity to healthy food has a bigger impact in communities of color. The impact of access to healthy foods is greater among counties with higher-than-average percentages of residents of color. Having an additional healthy food retailer per 1,000 people is associated with a reduction in diabetes rate that is three times larger in counties with above-average percentages of residents of color than counties with below-average percentages (Figure 1).

  • fa-healthy-equity-fig-2-thumb

    Fig. 2. (Click for full graphic.)

    Proximity to healthy food has smaller impact in lower-income communities. The benefits of access to healthy food is reduced in lower-income counties. Having an additional healthy food retailer per 1,000 people in lower-income counties is 2.5 times smaller than in higher-income counties (Figure 2).

  • Unhealthy food access and diabetes rates. Greater access to unhealthy food is associated with higher diabetes rates. Across all counties, having an additional unhealthy food retailer per 1,000 people is associated with a 0.10 percentage point increase in a county’s diabetes rates. This translates to approximately 35,000 more people with diabetes across the US.

We need comprehensive public policy approaches to address complex issues

Similar to the World Health Organization’s recommendation that governments should ensure their people are able to make healthy choices, the Union of Concerned Scientists advocates that US public policies should take a comprehensive approach to addressing healthy food access. Solutions should be multi-level and include investing in infrastructure and coordination to get healthy food from farm to market; ensuring equitable access to public transportation, retail grocery and development opportunities across all communities; and providing culturally appropriate nutrition education for children, teachers and parents.

We should rework our nation’s broken food system to emphasize the goal of improved health and well-being for all. Policies that focus on equitable food access will move us closer to this goal.

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