Nutrition Students Learn Through Community Interaction

By Joseph Neighbor

October 9, 2014
Institute of Human Nutrition project in New York City
Students in the Institute of Human Nutrition have helped assess the effectiveness of City Harvest’s Mobile Markets.

Data reveal that this year 1.5 million New Yorkers—including one in five children—will go without enough nutritious food to live an active, healthy life. The numbers tell us that hunger is clustered in pockets of poverty where healthy food is inaccessible and diet-related diseases—diabetes, obesity, heart disease—are endemic. But the numbers do not tell us what it is like to live in those conditions.

Students in Columbia’s Institute of Human Nutrition (IHN) are aware of the sobering statistics; they have seen the graphs and the charts. But the classroom can at times feel remote from the real world, say course directors Kim Hekimian, PhD, assistant professor of nutrition (in pediatrics and in the Institute of Human Nutrition) at CUMC, and Sharon R. Akabas, PhD, associate professor of nutrition (in pediatrics and in the Institute of Human Nutrition) at CUMC. “Many of the students have never been in an urban area before,” says Dr. Hekimian. “Some are international students, so they are unfamiliar with the community.”

But thanks to an ongoing collaboration with City Harvest, a nonprofit dedicated to combating hunger in New York City, graduate students in nutrition have an opportunity to see these communities for themselves. Last month, 80 students from Dr. Hekimian’s “Topics in Public Health Nutrition” class, along with Institute of Human Nutrition faculty, staff, and alumni, went into five of New York’s poorest neighborhoods to collect baseline data on the efficacy of City Harvest’s Mobile Markets, outdoor farmers market style events that distribute 2.5 million pounds of free fruits and vegetables a year in communities in which healthy food is largely inaccessible. The IHN volunteers, armed with questionnaires from the City Harvest Evaluation Department, did community canvassing to better understand why people make the decisions they do about food. The data they collect support ongoing City Harvest efforts to evaluate the impact of this program.

“It’s one thing to read a journal article,” says Veronica Uzoebo, EdD, City Harvest’s director of evaluation, “but we give students the opportunity to really understand a neighborhood experiencing the public health or social conditions described in the article, and the challenges of collecting the data behind an article. They get first-person experience in the field, collecting data. And we need the support the students provide; we have many programs, and resources are thin. So we get feet on the ground. It’s truly a remarkable collaboration.”

Not to mention the benefits rendered to the communities served by the Mobile Markets: the South Bronx, Bedford-Stuyvesant, northwest Queens, the north shore of Staten Island, Washington Heights/Inwood. Residents of these neighborhoods lack consistent access to affordable, nutritious food, a situation the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls “food insecurity.”

But doling out food is a short-term fix. A real solution requires a protean, multifaceted effort that influences both the supply of and demand for healthy food—which is precisely what City Harvest seeks to do. The group works with local grocers and bodega owners to make nutritious food more accessible: stocking more fruits and vegetables, creating more appealing displays, promoting specials, and improving refrigeration systems. But a bodega stocked with good food is worthless if no one buys the food. For this reason, City Harvest also works to educate people on how to shop, cook, and eat better.

So the communities get many thousands of pounds of free fruits and vegetables in the short term, as well as increased access to good, nutritious food in the long term. City Harvest gets much-needed help collecting data. And Columbia nutrition students get valuable experience conducting fieldwork. “It’s a win-win-win,” says Dr. Akabas, associate director of educational initiatives at the IHN. “Whatever the obstacles, its value is tremendous—immeasurable, really.”

Many obstacles remain. To coordinate such an effort poses logistical difficulties. Questions about income and lifestyle can be sensitive. And in New York, one of the world’s most diverse cities, linguistic hurdles must be overcome. But this, too, is an opportunity to learn. “To see the imperfections and the real-life challenges that come from collecting real data—this is a good thing for students,” says Dr. Akabas.