Recently, I was lucky enough to be one of twenty five Deakin University students selected to be a part of an ‘International Perspectives in Nutrition’ unit. One of the perks of this, being a study tour to the USA! The unit is relatively new, it is the second time it has been run and was organised by three very hardworking Deakin staff with a few friends in high places. Over two weeks we visited Washington DC, Philadelphia and State College.
Our tour was organised according to five major themes: food service, industry, government, innovation & sustainability and public health. Each excursion focused on one of these themes, for example: To investigate food service we ate at a State College, Pennsylvania high school cafeteria with students and teachers; whereas, for government, we met with the USDA marketing and promotions team who were responsible for the national dietary guidelines. We were very fortunate to have access to organisations that often the public would not be allowed into. Consequentially, we had to be on our best behaviour and it was not all fun and games (although we did get to make our own chocolate bar at Hershey’s World!). Our days started at 7.30am and we usually did not finish up until 7.00pm that evening, so it is fair to say we were exhausted by the end of it!
I’d like to provide an overall insight to my trip, and to compare the state of nutrition in the USA alongside us in Australia.
First and foremost, I think America is far ahead of us in terms of healthy nutrition initiatives. I was so impressed with all of the work being done to combat the obesity epidemic. I think because they were the first country where ‘it’ all began, they have had a few years to implement such tactics. One that stood out the most to me was Bartram’s Garden and their community farm and food resource centre. This was a huge space dedicated to community development, located in a very low SES area of Philadephia, but doing wonderful work engaging the community about the importance of fresh produce and good nutrition.
Although a lot of positive action is taking place, the government is most definitely taking a reactive rather than a preventative approach to health. This was evident in the fact that, as an example, millions of dollars are going towards medical resources for the National Institute of Health, yet no money is being put towards advertising of the U.S. dietary guidelines. This seems counter-intuitive to me, like much of public policy, how can we teach people about healthy eating if there is no money to do so? It appears that big money is going into the health care system, to fund already existing illness, and not so much going into projects that are focusing on the grass-roots side of things.
Another key learning that I have really taken home with me, is that I strongly believe that the solution to our nutrition lies in our relationship with food and getting back to basics. I saw first hand many, many amazing research projects going on in regards to medicine and science, but what stuck with me were the little projects being undertaken by local communities. Building community gardens in urban centres. Running cooking classes to teach people how to prepare the foods that are accessible to them. These are the tools that are going to make a difference to our health in the long term.
In saying all this, I am sure there is still a huge side to the state of nutrition in the US that I have not been exposed to. For the most part, we were in quite well off areas and immersed in a population who had access to a Wholefoods every few blocks, organic salad bars and grassy parks. The few weeks I was there, however, showed me a very different and varied perspective of the country and broke a lot of stereotypes and preconceptions that I had formed. I am excited and inspired to get back to work here and keep on sharing my love of healthy food and nutrition.