Nov 8, 2021
E.C. Barrett
In College of Human Ecology, Division of Nutritional Sciences

Racial health inequities are caused not by personal choice or genetics, but by structural inequalities, a Cornell researcher told the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Food and Nutrition, Specialty Crops, Organics, and Research on Nov. 2.

Black Americans are 60% more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes and are more likely to experience other adverse outcomes of poor nutrition and obesity, said Angela Odoms-Young, Ph.D. ’99, associate professor in the Division of Nutritional Sciences (DNS), in her testimony at the hearing, “The State of Nutrition in America.” Studies have also shown that Black Americans are more likely to live in environments that promote obesity, she said, with limited access to healthy food options and ample access to junk food, and Black children are exposed to 72% more fast food ads than their white peers.

“We did not get here by chance, but through policy,” she said. “Policies over centuries and at every level of government, such as redlining…restrict access for some but create opportunities for others....We need to continue prioritizing nutrition security with a lens of racial equity. The time to leverage new policy and programmatic efforts to decrease food-related hardship in Black communities and increase opportunities for better access is now.”

The pandemic has worsened the already widespread lack of access to food in the U.S., where nearly one in four households are now food insecure. Diet-related health issues, compounded by food inequity, disproportionately affect low-income and Black, Indigenous, and people of color populations, leaving researchers with questions around how to develop interventions that are responsive to intersecting injustices.

Odoms-Young, who is also the new director of the Food and Nutrition Education in Communities Program (FNEC) and New York State Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP), has spent her career looking for the answers to these questions.

Her research examines the impacts of social and structural inequities on dietary behavior and related health outcomes in low-income and communities of color and how to promote health equity, food justice and community resilience through culturally responsive programs and policies.

“In a country that uses the lens of race to categorize and privilege or disadvantage people, it’s impossible to understand the drivers that contribute to poor nutrition and health outcomes without a lens of race, equity, diversity and inclusion,” Odoms-Young said.

“Similarly with income, you can’t use the same intervention strategies in affluent communities as you would for someone who uses SNAP to make ends meet. It’s about risks and exposures, some of which are on the individual level and others that are societal and structural. We need to learn how to intervene on those exposures. To do that, we have to understand lived experience.”

Odoms-Young has served on the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s Food and Nutrition Board, and committees to develop the nutrition standards for the National School Lunch Program/School Breakfast Program and to revise the food packages provided in the Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children.

Interim FNEC Director Joan Paddock said Odoms-Young brings the expertise that Cornell and Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) have made a priority moving forward.

“We're all struggling with issues of diversity, equity and inclusion that have mushroomed in our consciousness since the pandemic started. Angela comes in as a nationally recognized speaker and researcher on issues of low-income folks in minority communities, which is directly applicable to what we do every day. It’s a really exciting transition for us.”

With a focus on low-income populations, FNEC provides program leadership, develops curricula and staff training, and conducts research to improve nutrition and prevent diet-related illnesses. Overseen by FNEC, EFNEP is a USDA-funded, CCE-delivered nutrition education program that hires and trains community members to teach the programming in their communities. Both are housed in DNS.

On Nov. 9, around 80 EFNEP frontline educators, supervisors and campus staff will virtually convene for their annual retreat to network with their peers from across the state and meet their new director.

The hire is a return for Odoms-Young, who earned a Ph.D. in community science from Cornell in 1999, an experience she described as shifting her focus from bench research to science-in-service to community. Odoms-Young is part of the Pathways to Social Justice faculty cohort within the College of Human Ecology.

“DNS is unique in that most departments don't have five or six community nutrition researchers, and then that’s combined with a strong international faculty focus,” Odoms-Young said. “That opportunity to interact with each other, to think about how these international models can be used domestically, and how domestic models can be used internationally, while at a land grant university that has been a leader in nutrition programming—as far as I know, there’s no other place like it.”