Healthy communities require multiple actions

Article was written by Terri Ward, Foodwise Extension Racine/Kenosha County Administrator

Originally published in the Kenosha News

In Kenosha County, rates of “food insecurity” – the inability to afford an adequate diet – are higher than those statewide.

Wisconsin’s food insecurity rate is 10.5 percent for all residents and 16 percent for children, whereas Kenosha County’s rates are 11 and 17.9 percent, respectively.

This information is revealed in a newly released study from the Urban Institute analyzing larger community dynamics that interact with peoples’ ability to afford food. (https://apps.urban.org/features/disrupting-food-insecurity/?county=Kenosha_County&state=WI.)

Influences the study measures related to food security include:

  • Housing costs relative to state and national rates, income and employment, including individuals living at less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level (a metric based on household size, for example, this is roughly $47,000 per year for a family of four).
  • Financial health (credit and debt loads).
  • Demographics such as level of education and household composition of children and elderly.

These correlates of food insecurity intersect with overall financial stability and economic health, of course impacting food budgets.

When a necessary cost consumes a high percentage of a family’s available resources, a common dynamic for low-income households, it leaves little to cover other expenses. Unfortunately buying enough healthy food often becomes a competing priority for other critical expenses like housing, utilities, transportation, and medical expenses.

40 percent of Kenosha County residents live at 200 percent of the federal poverty level, by the way, and that jumps to more than 50 percent in the City of Kenosha. These are real challenges facing nearly half our population.

Because food insecurity negatively affects a person’s ability to work and learn, reducing these rates is a major concern for our leadership, many community organizations, businesses, and individuals.

What, other than donating healthy foods and supporting your local food pantries, can be done to help people access healthy food?

According to the report, there are many evidence-based strategies to initiate. Among them is increasing access to affordable, healthy food in urban neighborhoods.

When food “choices” are limited to empty calories and processed foods high in added sugars, fats, and sodium, public health problems only worsen downstream (think long-term costs associated with food-related illness).

According to the Wisconsin Food Security Project, Kenosha County has only two supermarkets, groceries, or supercenters per 10,000 people, while there are seven fast-food restaurants per 10,000 people.  Further, 20 percent of the population live in census tracts with no healthy food outlets and 16 percent live in tracts with low healthy food access.

Add in transportation challenges, limited cooking skills, or a host of other barriers and regularly acquiring and consuming healthy foods can quickly become a daunting task.

Other strategies mentioned in the report include community- and place-based efforts to reduce poverty via policies and community engagement projects; increased use of child supplemental nutrition programs; fostering relationships between healthcare settings and food resources; expanding health care coverage; and engagement with evidence-based job training programs.

The bottom line: There is no “one answer”, no one group to blame. Effort is required of many people at all levels.

For more information on food security or nutrition and cooking education please contact the FoodWIse program.