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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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.
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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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What’s Driving Deforestation Now?

, sr. scientist & dir., Climate Research and Analysis

UCS has just created a new set of web pages summarizing the latest scientific information on the drivers of tropical deforestation. Even though we published a 120-page book about this issue, The Root of the Problem, just five years ago, there is so much new information that what we wrote then is rapidly becoming out of date. And some of these new studies have changed scientists’ minds about the problem in important ways. Read more >

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Healthiest Nation by 2030? Not Without Healthier Women and Children Today

, science and policy analyst, Center for Science and Democracy

The American Public Health Association has focused its advocacy attention and this year’s National Public Health Week on making the United States the healthiest nation in one generation, by 2030. I have to admit I was skeptical when I first heard this announcement. Read more >

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This National Public Health Week, a Look at Prevention and the US Food System

, senior analyst, Food and Environment

As National Public Health Week winds down, I’m left thinking about what it really means to prevent disease and promote good health. And whether our food system, and the public policies in place to guide it, are set up to do that. (Spoiler alert: They’re not.) Read more >

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How Is the USDA Doing on Scientific Integrity?

, lead analyst, Center for Science and Democracy

In March 2013, the US Department of Agriculture updated its scientific integrity policy, a policy mandated by the Obama Administration for all federal agencies with a significant focus on science. Along with 22 other agencies and departments, the USDA developed a policy in 2011 that the Union of Concerned Scientists assessed to “not make adequate commitments to scientific integrity.” How does the revised policy measure up and does it appear to be working? Read more >

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