As wellness professionals, we know nutrition is more than just healthy or unhealthy choices. The environments in which people live, work, and play influence food availability, accessibility, dietary behaviors, and ultimately, health. As NWI’s recent attention to social determinants of health, highlights food security and diet quality varies across neighborhoods, counties, and states. It’s evident that socio-economic factors, such as composition of local food environments, household social capital, and concentrated disadvantage, influence diet quality. In response, Community Food Security (CFS) has emerged as a movement and framework to ensure, “safe, culturally acceptable, nutritionally adequate diet through a sustainable food system that maximizes community self-reliance, social justice, and democratic decision-making”. We are witnessing the growth of this movement in our communities as local food policy councils form coalitions, worksites implement programs that connect employees with local foods, and states raise minimum wages in the food-service industry.
My research focuses on understanding the determinants of CFS and implications for evaluation. Through my work, I’ve reviewed many great CFS resources that wellness professionals may find useful. The following sections provide links to these resources and a review on ways to build strengths in the practice of CFS and wellness.
1. Learn more about CFS:
Community Food Security in the United States: A Review of the Literature
Whole Communities Fellowship (Applications for the 2020 fellowship cohort will open in November 2019)
2. Plan and evaluate:
Whole Measures for Community Food Systems
Values-Based Planning & Evaluation
USDA Community Food Security Assessment Toolkit
Building on Strengths: Wellness meets CFS
Wellness is defined by the National Wellness Institute as an “Active process through which people become aware of, and make choices toward, a more successful existence”. Wellness promotion focuses on creating the conditions that support health (rather than just preventing disease) by leveraging strategies grounded in respect for human agency, self-determination, authentic relationships, and participatory decision-making. Yet, individual wellness is embedded in and inter-dependent with the wellness of the community. Community wellness models stress the importance of fairness and justice to wellness promotion. By viewing nutrition through a community lens, focusing on strengths, and engaging members in making decisions about their food environment, the vision and practice of CFS is a natural fit with wellness promotion.
CFS is a growing movement and while the resources currently available are helpful, wellness practitioners may face challenges in initiating change on CFS issues. However, there are ways to build upon the strengths of wellness and CFS to improve participatory decision-making, multi-cultural competency, financial wellness, and evaluation.
Participatory decision-making is a value at the heart of wellness promotion and CFS as it enables individuals and communities to exercise agency and self-determination. However, power within communities is not evenly distributed and can influence participation in decision-making, agenda setting, and the shaping of perceived needs. Long-term engagement in community planning and evaluation efforts often requires time, transportation, child-care, and skills. These constraints can prevent marginalized groups from influencing the types of programs and policies initiated to improve the food environment in their community (see What Wellness Professionals Need to Know about Sugar Taxes as an example). Ensuring that planning meetings are accessible to a diverse range of community members is critical. Practitioners must also recognize that capacity building may be needed to ensure that everyone at the table has the skills to contribute to their full potential.
Multi-cultural competency is an essential aspect of wellness practice. There is substantial evidence that CFS and nutrition initiatives can reinforce racial hierarchies by divorcing nutrition and food preferences from a sociocultural context. For instance, deficit-based nutrition education programs that ignore participants’ culinary traditions or experience risks, violate personal agency and self-determination rather than supporting it. That’s not wellness. Moreover, some food advocates argue that the term “food desert” supports white privilege by implying emptiness in (often-times) black and brown communities and failing to recognize the robust informal food networks that exist. Organizations can provide staff with multi-cultural competency training that goes beyond one-size-fits-all nutrition programs and policies.
Nutrition is multi-dimensional and connected to each aspect of wellness, not just physical. In terms of occupational wellness, the food-service industry is one of the largest and fastest growing sectors in America. Although financial wellness has received a lot of attention recently due, in part to its influence on stress, current conversations overlook the role of economic justice. Socioeconomic patterns, such as geographic concentrations of low wages, high rent costs, residential instability, and unemployment adversely impact the financial wellness of individuals, but also entire communities. CFS expands the concept of financial wellness by building local wealth with policies like promoting local business development, community economic literacy, living wages, and investment in infrastructure that supports environmental health—Green New Deal anyone?
The final strength to build upon relates to evaluation. The CFS resources cited earlier provide guidance on how to define intended outcomes and select indicators in a participatory manner. However, CFS and wellness are characterized by complex systems that may not be fully understood, controllable, or predictable. Thus, unintended outcomes are inevitable. Current CFS evaluation guides do not provide detail on methods for evaluating systems and unintended outcomes. When evaluating CFS and wellness initiatives, practitioners can partner with an experienced evaluation team to implement systems-based evaluation frameworks or appreciative methods like Ripple Effects Mapping that can help uncover unintended outcomes influencing the system.
Christina Peterson (@foodkindness) is a PhD student in Evaluation, Statistics, and Measurement at the University of Tennessee. She is passionate about promoting sensible nutrition, inclusive communities and economic diversity through food system program and policy evaluation. Christina also has a MS in Nutrition and a BA in Economics. Prior to starting her PhD, she worked for a wellness non-profit conducting needs assessments, program evaluation and research on certification standards. Christina has worked and volunteered in many countries, including Singapore, Myanmar, Vietnam, Kenya, Spain, and Mexico. She is currently working as a Graduate Research Assistant for the Office of Information Technology Research Computing Support group.