Places where residents don’t have access to affordable, healthy foods—also known as food deserts—are a growing problem affecting millions of Americans. But in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, 34 percent of residents live in one, making it a full-blown health crisis.
Jennifer Knapp, who completed a policy analysis on food insecurity in Cuyahoga County, should know. Knapp is a student in Chamberlain University’s Master of Science in Nursing Family Nurse Practitioner specialty track (MSN-FNP program). She was born and raised in the Cleveland area, where she now works as a nurse.
When one of her projects at Chamberlain challenged her to “identify a health issue impacting your community,” she knew right away which issue she’d choose.
“Food insecurity is a major problem here,” Jennifer said. “The first time people experience it, many don’t know where to get help because there has never been a resource for that.”
Jennifer researched every healthy eating option she could find, organized them and aced her project. But it felt like a waste to stop there.
“I thought, ‘Well, I did all of this work… I should at least try to use it to help someone.’”
She had no idea how big her little project was about to become.
A Hidden Health Emergency
Food deserts don’t often grab headlines. They pose subtle dangers that are only visible over long-term study, so it isn’t easy to build public concern or drive immediate change.
Of course, that doesn’t make them any less dangerous. A closer look shows that food deserts are a much more pressing issue than most people realize.
“Food insecurity is a social risk factor that needs to be addressed,” Jennifer said. “There were multiple programs available, but the public wasn’t really aware of them because they weren’t well-advertised.”
In Cuyahoga County alone, one in five people experience food insecurity despite local programs designed to eliminate hunger. In addition to not having access to healthy eating options, residents often can’t afford to buy fruits or vegetables. Many even run out of food before they are able to purchase more.
The long-term impacts only get worse from there. People who lack access to basic nutrition staples are more likely to experience preventable diseases like obesity, hypertension and diabetes. Children who go to school hungry have a harder time focusing in class, so their grades suffer—followed by their college and career prospects. When fixed incomes don’t budget enough for a nutritious diet, seniors are forced into eating processed and fast foods.
It didn’t take long for Jennifer to see that someone needed to find a solution. So she thought, “Why not me?”
From Project to Policy
Jennifer started by reaching out to Cleveland’s prominent public health officials. They guided her to the director of the Healthy Cleveland website, who was impressed by her drive to help her community.
“I told them, ‘If we can list all of these programs and encourage food-insecure people to take advantage of them, we can get more of them the help they need.’”
She was surprised to receive a quick response from Healthy Cleveland’s director. It turned out the website had been planning to add a “Community Resource” section for years, but never had time for the exhaustive up-front research it would require. They were delighted to find out Jennifer had already done the legwork for them.
Healthy Cleveland quickly updated its website with all of Jennifer’s information. Finally, everything from food banks to farmers’ markets to hunger-related financial support was available in one easy-to-find place.
“By showing people these programs exist and encouraging those who are hungry to come forward, we can make sure more people get the help they need,” Jennifer said.
“I was so excited to know that my work is actually making a difference for the people in my community.”
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