This month we will be exploring nutrition as a major building block of health. Having enough to eat is clearly a major factor in overall well-being, and we all know the importance of eating a balanced diet with plenty of nourishing elements, such as fresh fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, too many of our neighbors in Virginia are going hungry, or are under-nourished. Hunger and poor nutrition are often interlinked, with people who struggle to afford enough to eat often limited to inexpensive but poor-quality food.
The consequences of an inadequate diet can be serious and far-reaching; health experts have demonstrated links between food insecurity and poor educational performance, obesity, and premature mortality. (“Food insecurity” – defined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as “the disruption of food intake or eating patterns because of lack of money or other resources,” – is the term used by many policy experts to characterize the experience of many Americans who do not have consistent access to affordable, nutritious food.) In this article, we will explore the current state of food insecurity in Virginia; in the next edition of County Connections, we will look at how Virginia counties are tackling this problem.
One important tool available to Virginia counties is the Summer Food Service Program. As you may have seen in the last several newsletters, No Kid Hungry Virginia held a conference call with First Lady Pamela Northam and City of Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney on May 24 to discuss how Virginia communities can take better advantage of this program to help address the problem of childhood hunger over the summer months. If you were not able to be on the call, please see the recap (which includes a link to the recording) here.
What does food insecurity look like in Virginia?
Food Insecurity: As part of its County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) estimates food insecurity rates by county, using a model constructed by Feeding America (this model uses survey responses about residents’ ability to obtain enough food to meet their needs in addition to information on poverty rates and other demographic data; detailed information on the model’s methodology is available in the “Map the Meal Gap” Technical Brief). In 2015, rates in Virginia localities varied from four percent to 28 percent; the county breakdown in Virginia is available at this link. Virginia’s Plan for Well-Being includes this measurement of food insecurity as part of its goal for healthy eating and physical activity. In 2013, 11.9 percent of Virginia households were food-insecure for some part of the year; in 2015, that figure had dropped to 11.2 percent. The Plan’s goal is to reduce that rate to 10 percent by 2020.
The Virginia Food Access Network, created by the Commonwealth Council on Bridging the Nutritional Divide, contains a wealth of resources for counties. “Story maps” on childhood hunger and access to nutrition contain data layers that allow mapping of factors such as percentages of children who are food-insecure and participation in federal nutrition programs by locality. These maps can be found by clicking the “Data Stories” menu at the top of the main webpage, or by scrolling down on the main webpage until you see the maps.
Limited access to healthy food: RWJF measures this component of community health as the percentage of the population that earns a low income (defined as an annual income of 200 percent of the federal poverty level or less) and does not live near a grocery store (in rural areas, living more than ten miles from the store and in non-rural areas, more than one mile). Data from 2015 is available at this link; although RWJF calculates the overall rate in the state at a relatively low 4 percent, there is significant variability among jurisdictions.
Communities with limited access to nutritious food are often referred to as “food deserts.” A Food Desert Task Force led by representatives of Virginia Tech and Virginia State University conducted a study and produced a report in January 2014; that report examined access to healthy food in several localities selected to represent a variety of rural and urban areas and concluded that food deserts existed in both rural and urban areas, including “pockets of low food access and food insecurity” even in areas with greater resources overall. The report cited a strong connection between food deserts and poverty and emphasized the barriers posed by lack of access to reliable transportation in reaching grocery stores. The report is available at this link.
Obesity: The percentage of Virginia adults who are overweight or obese is a component of Virginia’s Plan for Well-Being; in 2014, 64.7 percent of Virginia adults fit into that category. That rate had fallen to 64.1 percent in 2015; the Plan’s target is to reduce the rate to 63 percent by 2020. Adult obesity rates by county are available through RWJF at this link; this metric (which is more narrowly defined than in the Plan for Well-Being) indicates that adult obesity rates range from 18-45 percent in Virginia counties. Childhood obesity is of particular concern, as the Centers for Disease Control reports that children who are obese are more likely to be obese as adults. The Annie E. Casey Foundation reports that 27 percent of children ages 10-17 were overweight or obese in Virginia in 2015-2016.
In my next column, I’ll be sharing information about some innovative approaches that Virginia counties have taken to this problem. You can find links to the resources in this column on the Healthy Virginia Counties page on VACo’s website.