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Food System Dynamics Structuring Nutrition Equity in Racialized Urban Neighborhoods

Journal Title The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
Published Date April 01, 2022
Research Type
Authors Jill Clark


Background: The food system is a social determinant of health and a leverage point for reducing diet-related racial inequities. Yet, food system interventions have not resulted in sustained improvement in dietary outcomes for underrepresented minorities living in neighborhoods with a history of disinvestment. Research is needed to illuminate the dynamics structuring food systems in racialized neighborhoods to inform intervention development.

Objectives: To conduct participatory research examining the complexity and inequity of food systems in historically redlined neighborhoods to identify feedback mechanisms to leverage in efforts to transform system outcomes for racial equity.

Methods: We conducted a mixed-methods study in Cleveland, Ohio, USA from 2018 to 2021 using participatory system dynamic modeling with 30 academic and community partners, in-depth qualitative interviews with 22 key stakeholders, and public convenings with 250 local food policy council affiliates. Data were synthesized into causal loop diagrams depicting feedback mechanisms reinforcing or balancing neighborhood-level food system dynamics.

Results: We identified 10 feedback mechanisms structuring nutrition equity, which was identified as a meta-goal for food systems in racialized neighborhoods. Feedback mechanisms were organized in 3 domains: 1) meeting basic food needs with dignity (i.e., side hustle, government benefits, emergency food assistance, stigma, and stereotypes); 2) local food supply and demand dynamics (i.e., healthy food retail, job security, food culture, and norms); and 3) community empowerment and food sovereignty (i.e., community power, urban agriculture, risk of gentrification). Five exogenous factors moderate feedback dynamics: Neighborhood crisis, neighborhood investments, household costs, government benefit funding, and voter participation.

Conclusions: We identified nutrition equity as an overarching goal for local food systems, which reflects a state of having freedom, agency, and dignity in food traditions resulting in people and communities healthy in body, mind, and spirit. It is a transformative goal designed to spur system-level interventions that further racial equity through improved local food system dynamics.

Freedman, DA, Clark, JK, Lounsbury, DW, Boswell, L, Burns, M, Jackson, MB, Mikelbank, K, Donley, G, Worley Bell, L, Mitchell, J, Ciesielski, TH, Embaye, M, Kyung Lee, E, Roche, A, Gill, I, & Yamoah, O. (2022). Food system dynamics structuring nutrition equity in racialized urban neighborhoods. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 11(4), 1027-1038.