Improving Community Nutrition

By Power, Mike | Human Ecology Forum, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Improving Community Nutrition


Power, Mike, Human Ecology Forum


Despite the best efforts of nutritionists, many Americans still consume too much fat and not enough fruits and vegetables. An innovative, community-based project being carried out in Rochester, New York, may serve as a model for future food and nutrition intervention strategies and research models.

For several years, "Strive for five!" has been the battle cry of nutritionists fighting to get people to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables each day. Unfortunately, their message frequently falls on deaf ears. Many Americans continue to consume diets high in fat and sugar and low in plant foods. In the process, they increase their risk for obesity and diet-related problems such as hypertension, heart disease, and cancer.

New strategies to get people to adopt more nutritious eating habits are clearly needed. An innovative program being conducted in Rochester, New York, may be a step in the right direction. The Rochester Community Plant Food Project is a joint effort between nutritionists from the Division of Nutritional Sciences and Cornell Cooperative Extension professionals in Monroe County. The multiphase project is attempting to discover what can be done at the community level to increase consumption of plant foods. The project is one of several being funded by a special grant made to the Division of Nutritional Sciences by the USDA.

"Individuals make food decisions within the larger contexts of family and community food systems," says Ardyth Gillespie, a professor in the division and the principal investigator in the project. "Food decisions also are the result of a complex set of interactions and patterns through which values are expressed and negotiated and individual preferences are considered and accommodated."

Other factors influencing food decisions include time, money, ethnic and cultural influences, social and domestic responsibilities and relationships, personal food preferences and needs, and beliefs and knowledge about food and nutrition, she adds.

"Many communities have tried various approaches to improve food choices, but they haven't been very successful," Gillespie says. "We think that's because such efforts have not been adequately tailored to communities. To do so, you need first to identify individual and family perceptions about plant foods, how families make food decisions, and community-level restraints on the availability of plant foods."

Recognizing the role of the community in influencing food decisions, the researchers recruited an advisory committee composed of Rochester community decision makers to guide project staff members on the research component of the study. Later, they will assist in developing intervention strategies to help people in the community increase their consumption of plant foods.

The project has several long-term goals. The first is to understand how individuals, families, and communities interact to determine the availability and consumption of plant foods. To do that, the researchers are taking an across-the-board look at the community.

"We want to look at the dietary perspectives of people of all income levels because that's obviously important in gaining a community perspective," Gillespie says.

The study is also looking at the diets of people of major ethnic groups. The researchers have found that ethnic differences must be taken into consideration if the project is to be effective. At the same time, they've found that there are many similarities that can enhance community social support.

"For example, part of our sample is Hispanic, and one of the things we've found is that Hispanics tend to think of fresh vegetables as falling into two categories," Gillespie says. "One is the leafy green vegetables and the other includes the tubers and root vegetables. This has taught us the importance of communication, both in asking questions and learning about food choices as well as in planning interventions. …

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