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by National Council of La Raza

Healthy food choices are much easier to make in a supportive food environment — where healthier foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables and foods that are less processed, are available and affordable. Too many Hispanic families do not live in a supportive food environment. Counties with large Hispanic populations have a greater proportion of people with limited access to grocery stores (29 percent) than other counties do (21 percent). Latino children and low-income people are at particular risk.

In a national survey, more than 10 percent of Hispanics reported difficulty in accessing affordable fresh fruits and vegetables— a higher rate than any other racial/ethnic group. The survey also found that access to fresh produce is linked with better health: people who reported that they were in poor health were four times as likely to face access barriers as people who said they were in excellent health (20 percent vs. 5 percent).

Research shows that larger chain supermarkets tend to carry more healthy food items, such as produce, at lower prices, while smaller convenience stores tend to carry less fresh produce and more snack foods that are calorie-rich but nutrient-poor. Thus, neighborhood convenience stores typically cannot compensate for the lack of a supermarket that offers healthy foods.

Hispanic neighborhoods, particularly those in nonurban areas, have almost one-third fewer chain supermarkets but more convenience stores than non-Hispanic neighborhoods. Better access to chain supermarkets has been associated with lower adolescent body-mass index (BMI) scores and lower rates of overweight. Greater access to convenience stores, in contrast, has been associated with higher BMI and frequency of overweight. Latino children have high rates of overweight and obesity and are consequently more likely to develop largely preventable diseases such as diabetes. All signs indicate that any discussion of public health should include a look at the local food environment.

The National Council of La Raza — the largest national Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization in the United States — works to improve opportunities for Hispanic Americans. Learn more at

Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital in Milwaukee is a member of Ascension Health, the nation’s largest nonprofit health system and its largest Catholic health system. Ascension’s call to action is “to provide health care that leaves no one behind.” Milwaukee is one of the poorest cities in the nation. With poverty rates higher than 40 percent in parts of the city, many of Milwaukee’s neighborhoods have been left behind.

Columbia St. Mary’s sponsors a community-based, chronic disease management program (CCDM) located at food pantries operated by churches around the city. Because disease management is so heavily influenced by dietary choices, it made sense to locate the program in food pantries so that it is easy to incorporate nutrition counseling into the health screenings. “The cyclical in control/out of control management of chronic diseases cried out for a model of care different from the office-based, doctor-centric approach,” says Bill Solberg, Director of Community Services at Columbia St Mary’s.

The program employs two parish nurses who work with churches in some of the city’s most disadvantaged African American and Hispanic communities. A parish nurse is a registered nurse who works within a faith community to respond to the health issues of the members and the broader community or neighborhood. What distinguishes a parish nurse is the spiritual side of her work. “We’re not just our heart or our liver or our kidneys,” says Maureen Daniels of the International Parish Nurse Resource Center. “Part of being a person is that whole dimension of spirit that makes us who we are.”

Columbia St. Mary’s is a Catholic institution, but parish nursing is not a distinctly Catholic vocation — many prefer the term faith-community nurse. There are approximately 15,000 parish/faith-community nurses in the United States, and it is one of the fastest growing specialty practices recognized by the American Nurses Association.

Julia Means, one of the nurses employed by the hospital, is a member of Ebenezer Church of God in Christ, the site of one of the pantries. Solid partnerships with the churches have been the key to ensuring that the program is sustainable. Charles McClelland, Bishop of the Northwest Wisconsin Jurisdiction of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), was so impressed with the CCDM program that he invited Means to coordinate the health ministries of all 42 churches that report to him.

The pantries stock the healthiest foods they can get. Healthy items such as chicken breasts, fresh fruit, and vegetables can be purchased from the Feeding America network food bank for a modest fee per pound, which allows the food bank to cover its maintenance costs for transportation and storage. Solberg estimates it costs Columbia St. Mary’s about $1,500 per year to support one pantry. That is less than the cost of one overnight hospital stay.

by Molly Marsh, Partners In Health

Store manager Cheryl Blair ushers a small group of employees and health workers into her second-floor office, which overlooks the shelves of Totsoh Trading Post near Tsaile, Arizona, in the Navajo Nation.

They settle themselves into chairs, ready to hammer out the mechanics of a program that aims to improve Navajos’ health by increasing their access to fruits and vegetables. Called the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program (FVRx®), the effort links retailers, community health workers, and clinics to create a better supply of and demand for fresh produce.

“Notice our food — it’s all junk food,” says Blair, gesturing toward aisles of chips and beef jerky, soda, and sugary confections. Not many kids are introduced to fresh foods at a young age, she continues. “It’s hard — if you can’t eat it as a kid, you’re not eating it now.”

There are only about 100 stores like this in Navajo Nation, an expanse of 27,425 square miles stretched across parts of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico, and most carry little fresh produce. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has classified the entire territory as a food desert. The grocery stores and convenience stores are hard to reach — or out of reach — for Navajo who lack regular access to transportation, and high poverty rates mean most people can’t afford to buy healthier foods even if they were available: 44 percent of households live below the poverty line. With dollars to stretch, families opt instead for dense, calorierich food that fills them up.

The corresponding effect on health is alarming. Navajos experience high rates of obesity and malnutrition, as well as diet-related illnesses such as diabetes and hypertension. Heart disease and diabetes are the leading causes of death on the reservation; about 26,000 people — nearly 22 percent of the adult population—have diabetes. Half of all children are overweight or obese.

Community Outreach & Patient Empowerment (COPE), a Gallup, New Mexico-based project of global health nonprofit Partners In Health, helps tackle these health disparities by providing training and support to nearly 100 community health representatives (CHRs) employed by Indian Health Services.

These CHRs play a critical role in communities. They visit people in their homes — many of whom they’ve known for years — to provide health care, and connect them to clinics and hospitals when they need more specialized treatment. They also counsel clients on healthy living habits, including eating more nutritious foods. Without reliable access to those foods and extra money to buy them, however, clients struggle to change their diets.

In response, COPE has become a catalyst and partner in a movement under way across the reservation to create stronger links between food and health. Scores of local and tribal health facilities, community organizations, and food security activists are pushing to create more awareness among Navajo about the importance of eating nutritious foods. These groups are also working to revitalize Navajo food traditions, promote food sovereignty, and spur economic development.

FVRx® is one part of this effort. Developed by food access organization Wholesome Wave, the program in Navajo Nation targets new and expecting mothers with gestational diabetes, and overweight or obese children from 3 to 6 years old. CHRs work with local health providers to identify families with these health risks and enroll them in the program. Clinicians also encourage their patients who meet these criteria to participate.

When an expectant mother visits her doctor at Tsaile Health Center, for example, she is referred to a CHR who talks with her about nutrition and is given a “prescription” worth $1/day/per family member that she can redeem for fruits and vegetables at Totsoh Trading Post. The voucher is good for one month.

This mother will receive a check-up from her doctor once a month for six months, at which her weight and blood pressure are measured, as well as other vitals. If she has a young child who is overweight or obese, that child will also receive regular monitoring. Over their period of enrollment, COPE staff will collect data on their Body Mass Index measurements and fruit and vegetable consumption to check their progress.

“We’re working on the basic concept that food is medicine,” says Memarie Tsosie, COPE’s food access manager. “Back in the old days, most of our grandparents ate food to nourish their bodies. Now it seems like food is for convenience. We want to bring back the notion that families can use healthy food to create healthy lifestyles.”

So far, about 100 families from the territory’s southeast region are participating in FVRx®, as are 10 health centers, two grocery stores, four trading posts, six convenience stores, and one farmers market. More of each will join the mix in subsequent months. COPE’s goal over three years is to expand into every region of Navajo Nation, reaching 75 percent of its population — about 135,000 people.

To ensure fruits and vegetables are available for them, COPE’s FVRx® team has identified all retailers on the reservation, recruited stores to participate in the program — Totsoh is one of the first — and helped owners better promote the purchase of fruits and vegetables in their stores. The team also works with farmers markets and local growers to try and get their produce on to store shelves. The idea is to encourage stores to increase the number of healthy offerings while guaranteeing a certain level of demand for owners and growers.

FVRx® teams also coach retailers through the voucher redemption process, which is the reason for the gathering in Blair’s office. The women work through possible snags — how to make sure IDs are accurate, what to do if shoppers forget their vouchers or if they buy more than they have credit for. The dietician among them also helps plan a menu for a cooking demonstration the store would like to hold. They settle on spinach smoothies, and chicken salad with pecans and cranberries.

While FVRx® enrolls specific families, the program’s underlying goal is to create an environment where entire communities have access to affordable fruits and vegetables. And it’s working — Blair and other store managers say they’ve seen an increase in the amount of produce purchased by families who aren’t participating in FVRx®. They initially worried they wouldn’t be able to sell everything; now they’re selling out.

Molly Marsh is Managing Editor of Partners In Health, a global nonprofit that provides health care to poor communities in 10 countries. Read more at