Jun 3, 2022
Juan Vazquez-Leddon
In College of Human Ecology, Division of Nutritional Sciences

U.S. cities face a host of challenges, from breaking the cycle of poverty and encouraging healthy lifestyles to responding to disasters and halting racism. Angela Odoms-Young, associate professor in Cornell’s Department of Nutritional Sciences, believes extension programs can help meet those demands.

Director of the Food and Nutrition Education in Communities Program and the New York State Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program, Odoms-Young gave a keynote address May 25 at the National Urban Extension Conference in Camden, New Jersey.

“Extension can play a key role in urban resilience, the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses and systems within cities to survive, adapt and grow, no matter the chronic stresses or acute shocks,” she said.

While extension leaders can help solve these issues, Odoms-Young urged them to have their programs work together, as the issues are interconnected. Programs, she said, can’t be working in silos.

In addition, translational research has an important role to play. Odoms-Young said that researchers need to understand what is happening in communities so the “science gives people practical solutions to real-world problems,” rather than “ivory tower theories that don’t work.”

Understanding the root causes of issues is necessary to effect positive change, she said.

“Racism has had a profound impact on our society because it is a system,” Odoms-Young said, noting that it affects health, wealth and stability.

Referring to a quote by Harvard’s David Williams, Odoms-Young said about 220 African Americans die every day in the U.S. who wouldn’t have died if their death rates were similar to those of white populations.

“For most of us, that would not be acceptable, and a lot of this is linked to chronic disease,” she said. “How do we move and understand the fact that people have been under a system where they’ve been viewed as being inferior for hundreds of years?”

Racism has led to a wealth gap nationally, where white communities have 10 times the wealth of Black communities. “It’s not just that people became low-income,” Odoms-Young said. “They became low-income because of historical oppression.”

Ripple effects of the housing discrimination that took place in the early to mid-1900s are still felt today, leading to what many call urban food deserts and food swamps (with the preferred term being food apartheid).

“This is persistent,” Odoms-Young said. “It’s not new, and we haven’t addressed it.” She stressed that although her research explores the impact of racism on nutrition and health in Black communities, systems of oppression impact us all.

Odoms-Young also noted the need for intersectionality, indicating that populations have become diverse at many levels, including sexual orientation, gender identity and family structures. She said extension programs need to adapt to these changes.

“How do you serve a community that’s transgender? How do you look at diverse family structures, not just the idea of this traditional family?” she asked. “People are showing up with all kinds of family combinations, and don’t forget about extended families. Do we have an intervention that responds to the needs of the LGBTQ population? How is this showing up in our work?” She said these identities also apply to the makeup of extension staffing, noting that staff diversity is an asset when serving communities.

“People are showing up as whole people, whole families,” she said. “When people have insecurity, they have uncertainty and anxiety about oneself and lack confidence. It doesn’t matter whether it’s food insecurity or housing insecurity. We need to avoid a reductionist approach and figure out how we work collaboratively to think about holistic perspectives.”