By Supriya Kumar
Name: Christa Essig
Affiliation: Public Health Analyst, National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH) and Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Location: Atlanta, Georgia
Bio: Christa works as the liaison on food system issues between CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health and Nutrition Branch. The work includes examining co-benefits of sustainable food systems for environmental and nutritional health. She co-leads CDC’s Healthy Food and Farm Policy work group and CDC’s Go Green, Get Healthy Food work group to green worksite food services. Additional activities include serving as a member of the CDC Healthy Community Design Initiative to integrate healthy food access and built environment strategies, and facilitation of cross-agency communications with U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on food system and health issues. Previous research includes analysis of pesticide exposure in Costa Rican farm workers and a community food assessment in Atlanta, GA. Additional experience includes as a Nutritionist for the food supplement program WIC, on the boards of the Atlanta Local Food Initiative and Atlanta Community Garden Coalition, and helping to start farmers markets, community gardens and institutional sustainable food procurement in her community. Her education includes a B.S. in Food Science and Human Nutrition, from the University of Illinois, Champaign, and an MPH, concentration in Global Environmental Health, from Emory University.
According to Christa Essig, there are many links between going green, eating well, and living a healthy lifestyle. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)
What is the biggest challenge with the global and domestic food system?
I am not sure there is a single great problem rising above all others in the multi-faceted challenges of the global and domestic food system, just like there is no single silver bullet to solve the problems. We face many tribulations throughout different stages in the food system including issues with water, air, soil, biodiversity, energy, culture, health, diet, food security, affordability, livelihoods, fair business, women’s rights, land rights, workers justice, climate change, and the list goes on. But I do think one of society’s greatest challenges is to ensure everyone has enough to eat. Here in the United States, one in seven people rely on food assistance programs and globally 925 million do not have enough to eat. This is widely a problem of inefficient distribution and waste, not just a need for higher yields. Not only do we need to ensure that people do not go hungry, we also need to ensure that people have access to healthy food that enables them to live long and productive lives. Foods are often loaded up with sugar and salt, making them more harmful than helpful. As a result chronic diseases, such as obesity and diabetes, are increasingly becoming more common here in the United States and in countries around the world.
Another problem with our food system is the increasing reliance on unsustainable inputs in the production of food. Current and widely-used industrial methods of production rely on depleting fresh water resources, toxic chemicals, fossil fuel-based inputs, and little regard to natural and local ecosystems there-in negatively impacting the environment, people’s health and livelihoods, and our long term capacity to produce healthy food for a growing population.
Furthermore, the amount of food that is discarded by producers, processors, retailers and consumers also often makes our food system quite wasteful. Finally, at the distribution level, there is not always an efficient connection between farms and markets, resulting in products being transported many miles before reaching its final destination and not ending up accessible to everyone.
In a recent presentation, you stated that there are about 11.5 million people in the United States who live in “food deserts”. How can we improve access to healthy and nutritious food here in the United States?
We do not know the best strategy to improve people’s access to healthy food—so we have to approach it from different fronts depending on individual communities. While some communities might benefit from the establishment of supermarkets or the improvement of public transportation, others might benefit from growing their own food through community gardens. In other cases, it might benefit a community to have farmers who live close to them produce their food and interact with consumers through direct markets. What we do know is that access to a healthy food environment does improve consumption of healthy food and that can be done through many different mechanisms. In all cases, we should look for solutions that cater to each community based on what already exists and augments sustainable resources and partners instead of hastily adding new, incompatible solutions. The term “food deserts” doesn’t fully describe the problem—what we often have instead are “unhealthy food swamps”—areas with an overabundance of high-calorie, low-nutrient foods instead of healthy options. The food system and environment solutions need to be multi-faceted, community-led, and community-specific—we need to look inside our schools, hospitals, worksites and communities and aim to be culturally and locally appropriate. A co-benefit of good solutions to the low-access problem is the potential to help spark community and economic development and new jobs.
Some critics say that healthy food is usually more expensive than junk food. While, others, like Mark Bittman, have suggested that junk food could actually be more costly. If that is the case, how do we encourage families to choose to prepare healthy, home-cooked meals, rather than depend on the convenience of fast food restaurants?
A common excuse for many people is that they simply do not have the time to cook a nice, healthy, home-cooked meal. But what they need to understand is that it doesn’t take hours to cook something. We need to change people’s perceptions about how much time it takes to cook. Meals do not need to be extravagant and can use simple ingredients that are cheap, easy to get, and more nutritious and better tasting than fast food.
Can you briefly describe the roles you play at the Center for Diseases Prevention and the National Center for Environmental Health?
I am currently shared between Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity, Nutrition Branch, and the National Center for Environmental Health. This allows me to integrate food system and nutritional issues with environmental programs. At the National Center for Environmental Health, I bring the nutritional perspective in to the conversation about health and the built environment. In the Healthy Community Design Initiative, we look at how a community’s infrastructure, including transportation systems, can impact people’s health through active transit, air quality and injury prevention. We also look at how the food environment and access to healthy food is impacted by community design.
Another activity of mine is to increase collaboration and communication with the USDA. I also co-lead the CDC Healthy Food and Farm Policy work. We seek to examine and communicate the science and evidence of the health impact of food and farm policy. Additionally, we work with partners to build awareness and make connections between agriculture, food and health sectors. We are contributing to these efforts through the Healthy Farms, Healthy People coalition, whose goal is to identify policy options that support health and promote increased access to healthy food for underserved communities, while also supporting farmers, ranchers and strong, healthy rural communities.
Supriya Kumar is a research fellow with Nourishing the Planet.