A key foundation to any healthy community includes access to healthy food.
Nutrition security is a term used to describe when individuals and families have consistent access to safe and nutritious foods that support optimal health and well-being for all, throughout all stages of life.
When families don’t have consistent access to nutritious foods, it makes it harder for children to thrive in and out of school, increases the risk of health problems for children and adults, makes it more difficult to manage chronic conditions and contributes to chronic stress for families.
In Wisconsin, one in 10 households and one in five children are food insecure. When households are food insecure, people worry about running out of food without having money to buy more. Food insecurity is found in all communities, however it is more prevalent in rural areas than in suburban areas.
The COVID-19 pandemic shone a spotlight on existing inequities, exacerbating food insecurity and amplifying vulnerabilities in the food system including production, processing, transportation, consumption, disposal and emergency food systems.
Residents in rural areas of Wisconsin faced food security challenges due to job losses, underemployment, disrupted food and nutrition programs and a stressed emergency food system.
Efforts to support healthy eating and address nutrition insecurity typically focus on individuals and personal health behavior changes. But such approaches often do not lead to sustainable change because the larger environment in which people live, work, learn and play does not support the changes they are trying to make.
To make lasting change, communities are increasingly focusing on policy, systems and environmental change efforts that make healthy choices practical and available to all community members.
Policy changes can involve laws, ordinances, guidelines, regulations or rules. Changes at the systems level – such as organizational procedures or resource allocation – are changes that impact areas of an organization, institution or community.
Environmental changes involve changes to the economic, social or built environment. Because every community is unique, the most effective change interventions are those that are developed and implemented in partnership with the local community. This helps ensure that the intervention addresses the specific local context and needs, and that the changes will be sustainable over time.
The programs of Extension’s Health & Well-Being Institute – including Healthy Eating Active Living and the federally supported FoodWIse program – work with community organizations to support the policy, systems and environmental changes needed to address nutrition security.
Extension educators have worked with church meal programs to advance implementation of a nutrition policy to increase access to healthy foods among community members. Extension provided technical assistance to develop a nutrition policy that uses the USDA MyPlate model as a guide for serving nutritious food and details a donation policy emphasizing nutritious foods and declining unhealthy donations
Extension educators also worked with Master Gardener volunteers to add year-round fresh produce to the meals. Extension further worked with Master Gardener volunteers in another county, along with local partners, to establish 20 community gardens that donated produce to food pantries, low income housing, schools and community meal programs. In 2021, 12,448 pounds of produce were grown and donated, reaching more than 8,500 people during the course of the growing season.
Extension also collaborated with community groups to increase the distribution of the USDA Commodity Supplemental Food Program, known as Stockboxes for Seniors. This increased the nutrition security of seniors with limited incomes. Food boxes with recipes and resources were distributed to eligible seniors monthly through a collaboration between aging and disability resource centers, housing authorities, nonprofit organizations, local health departments and coalitions of local food pantries.
In Portage and Wood counties – two counties where rural populations outpace the state average – project partners distributed 18,000 pounds of food to eligible seniors during the last four months of 2021.
Learn more about Extension’s efforts statewide and in your area, and how you can get involved, at extension.wisc.edu.
Guest column by Kathryn Boryc Smock, featured in the June|July 2022 Rural Route. Boryc Smock is the Program Manager for FoodWIse, UW-Madison Extension’s program supported by SNAP-Ed and EFNEP federal funding. FoodWIse conducts programming in 71 counties across Wisconsin.
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