Influencers Opinion

Zach Friend: What one California county did to improve nutritional outcomes

Fresh produce at a farmer’s market in California.
Fresh produce at a farmer’s market in California.

As a Santa Cruz County Supervisor, I see first-hand how nutrition impacts health outcomes, specifically for those who live with food insecurity or in poverty.

Our local health clinics serve as a safety net, which provide options for many below the poverty line, report rising instances of childhood obesity, type 2 diabetes and other health issues that could be improved through nutrition and exercise.

A recent study by the Public Policy Institute of California notes Santa Cruz County had one of the highest poverty rates in the state. Rising housing costs have outpaced wages in industries such as agriculture, tourism and construction. But my county’s situation isn’t unique.

As a result, many of my constituents rely on state and federal safety net programs (such as CalFresh, school meals and the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) as a lifeline for their nutrition.

Improving nutrition is one of the most cost-effective ways to improve health outcomes yet is often overlooked by policymakers in the overall healthcare debate. Though backed by significant amounts of scientific study, which shows that improvements in diet and exercise have positive benefits on common U.S. health issues (obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease), focus on nutrition in medical education and even access to foods that improve health outcomes continues to be lacking.

So how can we better these indicators?

In Santa Cruz County, we work to ensure our CalFresh recipients are provided with nutritious options. Our local food bank Second Harvest believes “only with adequate food and nutrition can children learn, adults work, and our community thrive.” Healthy food, including nutritional education, is the backbone of what they do and they have found it has improved health outcomes among recipients. Many of our local schools have partnered with local businesses and the agricultural community to provide free salad bars in school cafeterias.

There are other things communities and the higher educational system can do to help improve outcomes.

One simple method would be to increase the training for health influencers in nutrition. According to the National Institutes of Health, even though research has shown that a physician’s knowledge of nutrition directly affects the quality of their preventative health counseling and patient outcomes, medical students average fewer than 20 hours over four years of medical education on learning about nutrition. Our local safety net health clinics are successful in large part because they are trusted to provide quality health care to our community. The advice doctors and nurses provide on wellness is taken as gospel. But without adequate training, it puts the medical staff in a difficult position.

Another would be to increase medical and nursing school training on nutrition. As front-line health influencers ensuring that nutrition is elevated in knowledge and interest among physicians, will have positive impacts on health outcomes.

Additionally, we can ensure healthy food and nutritional education is provided at the source. Improving the prevalence of unprocessed foods, fresh fruits and vegetables within subsidized or free nutrition programs can make a difference. We’ve seen it here in Santa Cruz County through our local food bank and schools that are providing these options and report improved outcomes. Overall, these are inexpensive and simple solutions that could have large impacts on health.

The problem is real, but it is solvable. We can improve health outcomes, including the health disparities for those in poverty, through improved access to healthy food and nutritional education - for health influencers and providers.

Zach Friend is Second District Supervisor for Santa Cruz County.