Happy Thanksgiving

Greetings from a snowy Princeton, New Jersey. This afternoon, with our son Tucker, we will share a Thanksgiving feast with Chapel Hill friends who are here for the academic year. Last night we ate well at Agriclola, cited as one of new Jersey’s top 25 best restaurants for 2014, called by the New York Times “close to nature, and close to perfection.” It is a bountiful, beautiful time.

But not, of course, for everyone. Poverty surrounds this wealthy university town just as it does Chapel Hill. A farm-to-table restaurant that owns its own farm, 112 acres just four miles out of town, Agricola gives back. Acting on its mission to work with those “who are engaged in hunger relief, nutritional education and culinary professional development,” it funds a scholarship for a community college’s culinary arts program, and it donates to a local food bank.

This time last week, my colleague Donna Bell and I were in Oakland attending the National Housing Conference, where one of the most interesting sessions was on strategies for connecting affordable housing with healthy eating.

It was gratifying to realize that some of the recommended strategies are already in place, or at least in motion, in Orange County. The Carrboro Farmers Market not only accepts SNAP benefits but even, through a UNC program, offers a matching fund. A movement has begun to create a food council in Orange County. This effort is being led by folks connected to UNC’s Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention (Molly DeMarco) and the Orange County Health Department’s “Healthy Carolinians” initiative (Ashley Mercer), among others. I look forward to learning more about a new collaborative research center established just this fall, the Duke-UNC USDA Center for Behavioral Economics and Healthy Food Choice Research, to understand how its work might help us further address food insecurity in Orange County. These developments resonate with what we learned in Oakland–that over the past decade, the field of public health has embraced an understanding that the factors involved in public health extend far beyond medical care.

The Oakland session emphasized two points in particular. First, that place matters. “Our ZIP code is more important to our health than our genetic code.” The built environment can do much to help or hinder healthy living. Walkable communities, complete streets, access to transit, to parks, to grocery stores, to public wireless, all of this matters. Charlotte’s light rail users have lost, on average, 6 pounds!

Realizing this fundamental connection can be a powerful incentive for cross-sector collaboration: not only connecting local planning processes with public health workers, but also reaching out to include social workers and others. Even the Federal Reserve System is coming to understand this important link.

Second, that simply making healthy food available in low-income communities, without more, is not enough. Research demonstrates that living under chronic stress–which typifies the lives of many in public housing, for example–makes it difficult to focus on higher-order goals, such as good diet and exercise. A successful program to improve the eating habits of public housing residents would need to include “high-touch,” hands-on strategies. That’s an area where Chapel Hill can improve, and I look forward to conversations about how.

Meanwhile, on this Thanksgiving day I’m grateful to live in such a caring community. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

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