Going Beyond Investigative Bench Science to Support Community Nutrition

October 27, 2014
Megan Meyer
Ph.D. Candidate Department of Microbiology and Immunology, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hil

In 2013, nearly 15% of US households, or in 17.5 million Americans, were food-insecure. According to the USDA, food-insecure households are defined as those that “have difficulty providing enough food for all family members due to lack of resources.” With this large domestic problem, many communities have developed programs to alleviate food insecurity.

Nearly five years ago, I started volunteering at The Interfaith Council (IFC) food pantry as a Client Interviewer. As a Client Interviewer, I directly interact with the IFC clients to determine their individual needs and provide them with food items from the IFC food pantry. However, the IFC food pantry is unlike any food pantry I have seen or heard about since the IFC has a unique collaboration established with local farmers. This collaboration collects surplus produce from the weekly farmers’ market and distributes the produce to the IFC clients. Working with the IFC has granted me the opportunity to see, first-hand, the impact of food insecurity in the local community, work on projects to decrease food insecurity, and suggest strategies to alleviate this pervasive problem.

5 percent of Americans are having trouble putting food on the table.  Credit: Tiffany Farrant https://www.flickr.com/photos/gdsdigital/4127550851/in/set-72157622404508149

5 percent of Americans are having trouble putting food on the table. Photo: Tiffany Farrant

Increasing the number of organizations that promote community nutrition can reduce food insecurity

Organizations such as Farmer Foodshare and Community Nutrition Partnership are excellent examples for community-based programs that support local agriculture and improve nutrition rates in food-insecure individuals in the Research Triangle Park region of North Carolina. Farmer Foodshare strives to provide fresh produce to the local community and to boost farm economics. Since 2009, Farmer Foodshare has raised over 100 tons of fresh, local food for non-profit organizations to improve food security in numerous counties across North Carolina.

Connecting farmer’s markets with organizations that promote food security not only provides fresh produce to the food-insecure individuals but also supports local farming, minimizes waste, improves public health outcomes, and builds mutually beneficial relationships in the community. Though these programs are based in North Carolina, there are many other organizations throughout the United States with similar missions of supporting local agriculture and addressing food insecurity.

How scientists and experts can contribute to improve nutrition in local communities

Many of the IFC clients that I have interacted with are excited about the access to fresh, healthy produce. However, despite their excitement, few are fully aware of the health impact these products may afford them and their families. To me, this signifies a powerful opportunity for education to increase awareness and understanding about the health benefits of fresh produce. Infographics, that are interactive and concise, could be utilized to impart key nutrition facts and health impact of the goods. Furthermore, cooking recommendations or demonstrations would ensure that the clients understand how to properly store and use the food items.

While providing food may greatly improve the nutrition and health of their clients, evidence-based, objective information is lacking to support these claims. If organizations were able to collaborate with local scientists to formulate and test hypotheses about their programs’ interventions, empirical data could be generated to analyze the efficacy and effect of their program on defined health outcomes. These results could identify programs that are working and could be used as compelling evidence for extramural grants and support.

Basic research can answer specific and detailed questions

Did you know that an antioxidant found in broccoli sprouts reduces inflammation and lowers markers of influenza infection? I’m currently investigating the effects of environmental oxidants such as cigarette smoke and nutritional antioxidants on the respiratory immune response to influenza or “flu” virus. With our pre-clinical human research, we have shown that sulforaphane, an antioxidant found in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower, reduces influenza-induced inflammation as well as influenza replication in smokers. These exciting results suggest that nutritional supplementation may be a safe and inexpensive strategy for reducing influenza risk among high-risk populations such as smokers.

My laboratory research experience has afforded me the ability to examine the intersection between nutrition and immunology and how this intersection impacts human health. This type of scientific investigation offers an opportunity for scientists to connect and apply their work to support public health outcomes. Food insecurity remains a domestic and international problem, and promoting the collaboration of farmers, food banks, and scientists could generate possible policies and plans to solve this pervasive issue.