access to healthy foodResearch by the Food Research & Action Center shows that those with access to fresh foods tend to eat healthier diets and therefore are at a lower risk for obesity, a complex condition that can lead to cardiovascular and other chronic diseases. According to the Florida Department of Health, 26 percent of the state’s residents are obese, a disease heavily influenced by your diet. LaToya O'Neal, a UF/IFAS assistant professor of family, youth and community sciences, hopes to increase food security and, therefore, decrease obesity, across Florida.Photo credit: UF/IFASGAINESVILLE, Fla. — LaToya O’Neal and others at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences are trying to ensure that all people can buy nutritious food and, in turn, curb obesity among those with limited daily access to healthy food.

Those who go day to day with little to no access to nutritious food are food-insecure, O’Neal said.

About 13 percent of American households experienced food-insecurity in 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That is 29.1 million adults and 13.1 million children. Within that group are more than 3 million Florida residents.

Research by the Food Research & Action Center shows that those with access to fresh foods tend to eat healthier diets and therefore are at a lower risk for obesity, a complex condition that can lead to cardiovascular and other chronic diseases. According to the Florida Department of Health, 26 percent of the state’s residents are obese, a disease heavily influenced by diet.

In a new Extension document, O’Neal discusses low food security, defined as a decrease in diet quality or preference without a change in food consumption. She also explains the connection between people who are food insecure and obese.

Many food-insecure families live in food deserts, in which residents live far from a supermarket and have limited transportation, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

“When you consider the circumstances that are typically associated with food insecurity, you can understand the connection between food insecurity and obesity,” said O’Neal, a UF/IFAS assistant professor in family, youth and community sciences. O’Neal’s research and Extension programs aim to promote weight-related chronic disease prevention and management.

“To address food choice, we would educate individuals on the importance of making healthier food choices,” she said.

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For example, O’Neal and her colleagues will share with consumers the benefits of eating fresh or frozen produce, which are typically lower in sodium than the canned variety. They will also encourage reduced consumption of sugary beverages and fried foods.

Community discussions also offer a good platform to help stop the cycle of food-insecurity and obesity, O’Neal said.

“This would allow us the opportunity to work with residents to problem-solve,” she said. “For example, we could teach residents how to budget for healthy eating and how to apply for assistance when applicable.”

Additionally, UF/IFAS can identify community partners and organizations with whom to work so they can better address food insecurity, O’Neal said. As examples, O’Neal cited partnerships that could bring farmers’ markets to food-insecure areas.

“Collaborating with other community and health-focused organizations to increase access to healthy foods has been beneficial in other areas where I have worked,” O’Neal said “For example, healthy corner store initiatives, which involve supplying corner stores with fresh produce, have had some success in low-resource communities.”

UF/IFAS Extension offers a free Family Nutrition Program (FNP) to beneficiaries of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). FNP implements SNAP-Ed nutrition education to teach participants how to shop efficiently, eat healthier and become more physically active.

Visit your local Extension office for more information.