CalFresh and Health Disparities: Is There a Relationship?

Guest post by Corinne L. Quinn, MSPH, CHES, Community Health Leader, The Network for a Healthy California–Gold Country Region, African-American Campaign. For approximately one year, I have served as a volunteer Ambassador of the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano, educating people on CalFresh eligibility and providing them with information about food resources.  Professionally, I work in Solano County with The Network for a Healthy California-Gold Country Region African-American Campaign as a Community Health Leader/Educator, promoting the benefits of fruit and vegetable consumption and physical activity to low-income, CalFresh eligible African-Americans.

Due to my experiences, I am able to view the complex food policy issue from two vantage points.  At one end of the spectrum, I help people figure out if they are eligible for CalFresh benefits and guide them to food pantries and soup kitchens where they can receive nutritious food if they are in need; at the other end of the spectrum, I teach people which foods are healthy, how to prepare these foods, and the benefits of eating healthy foods. I am not an expert on CalFresh or health disparities, but I am certain that the basis for what I do on every front is to reduce health disparities.

Simply stated, health disparities are the differences in health outcomes between various racial and cultural groups.  I am most familiar with health disparities as they relate to African-Americans because that is the population I work with most often.  However, health disparities exist in Latino, Asian, and other communities.  According to the California Department of Public Health Center for Health Statistics,

over 76 percent of African-American adults in California are overweight or obese.

Mirroring that statistic is that over 12 percent of African-Americans in California suffer from diabetes; heart disease and cancer are the first and second leading causes of death for African-Americans in California.

In my professional and volunteer service to the community, one thing is clear to me:  the adage

“you are what you eat from your head down to your feet”

is true.  The food that people purchase with CalFresh benefits directly impacts their health.  Research has shown that

eating more fruits and vegetables  decreases the risk of chronic illnesses. As a result, dietary guidelines for Americans now recommend that at least 50% of your plate be filled with fruits and vegetables at every meal for improved health.

Yet, problems persist as corner stores in low income neighborhoods do not provide access to fresh produce to shoppers. Equally disturbing is the abundance of fast food restaurants and convenience stores combined with the lack of grocery stores in neighborhoods which create and perpetuate food deserts.  The struggle still continues to completely and forever change the food policies and food landscape of communities across America in order to give people access to the healthy foods they need and deserve.

The affected communities have responded that they want change AND want to make a change.  This change has begun through attempts to engage and empower the affected communities through education.

The Network for a Healthy California-Gold Country Region African-American Campaign has taught nutrition education and cooking classes in partnership with an innovative program called Farm to Families (a Kaiser Permanente initiative which empowers residents of low income apartment communities in Fairfield toward a healthy life by increasing access to produce).

  Community gardens are springing up throughout Vallejo.  Through the Farm 2 Kids program, the Food Bank provides fresh fruits and vegetables to children in schools where over 50% of the students in these schools receive free or reduced cost school lunches, meaning at least half of the households in the school are considered low-income by the federal government.  Recently, bills to increase access to healthy foods in affected communities throughout the state of California have been signed into law.

These community and societal actions are signs of hope.  I am optimistic that there is light at the end of the tunnel.  Slowly, but surely, this complex relationship between CalFresh and health disparities will be completely untangled, fully explored, and understood.  Understanding this relationship fully will ultimately lead to a reduction in health disparities.

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