Feb 21, 2024

🎙 FHSU professor discusses food management in food deserts, swamps

Posted Feb 21, 2024 10:15 AM
Photo by Pixabay
Photo by Pixabay

Hays Post

The word "malnutrition" is usually associated with hunger and underfed people in the developing world.

But the term also applies to those who are overfed and eating too much unhealthy food.

It's a problem in industrialized countries, including the United States, says Jessica Phelan, PhD, assistant professor in the Fort Hays State University Department of Health and Human Performance. 

"When we think of those who are morbidly obese or suffering from those lifestyle diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease from overconsumption of food, that's also considered malnutrition," said Phelan, "because we're in a state of poor nutrition."  

Many times the foods that are overconsumed are of poor nutritional density.

"We would refer to them as ultra-processed foods, meaning that they have a lot of calories but not much good stuff.  

"Ultra-processed foods usually have more sugar, salt and fats versus those nutrients that we really want more of," she said.

There are four levels of household food security — whether people have access to enough healthy food for a healthy, active lifestyle — starting with high and falling to very low.

At any level of food insecurity, households potentially run out of food, or they have to manage the food that they have in their homes by skipping meals, reducing the size of meals or not eating if hungry.

"Food insecurity is linked with poverty, but it's also linked with accessibility," Phelan said. 

Food deserts are geographic areas where fresh and affordable healthy foods cannot be easily purchased. 

"Think about rural areas where grocery stores are miles and miles away," Phelan said. "You have to drive to another town to access healthy fruits and vegetables."

In urban areas, residents might not have vehicles and must walk or take public transportation to get groceries. 

"If there are no grocery stores, farmers markets or fresh food sources near their homes, that's also considered a food desert," she said.

There are also food swamps.

"We have access to food but it's not what is going to be healthful for our lives," she said.

Urban areas and small rural towns often have convenience stores, gas stations and fast-food restaurants, but there is no access to foods that would benefit your health.

"In addition to socioeconomic factors, your geographic location really influences what types of foods you're able to consume," Phalen said. 

All food, she said, can be part of a nutritious diet. 

"Of course, we want to try to choose those foods that are more healthful but if that's the resource you have, we can still make that part of a healthy diet," she said.

"There are plenty of times when ultra-processed food is something that is going to stay on the shelf longer for you. If that's going to supply you with some kind of energy, that's better than the alternative."

Canned and frozen foods are also healthy alternatives and easy to store.

In Ellis County, there are numerous resources for food assistance, including food pantries, food distribution, and state and federal government assistance programs.

A list of available programs is available through the United Way of Ellis County community resource directory app