Written By: Jordan Fickess

Health equity has taken on a new importance since the COVID pandemic struck the world more than a year and a half ago. Chicago, a city with a notable racial life expectancy gap when comparing White and majority minority communities, also faced disproportionate COVID morbidity rates among Black and Latinx populations, as well as some Asian communities. Municipal and community leaders have been working together, even before COVID-19,  to address the same underlying conditions, also known as social determinants of health (e.g. lack of economic opportunity, limited access to health care,etc.), that showed up as major contributing factors toward these unfortunate health outcomes.  

While food access is critical to achieving fair and just food resources in every community, nutrition equity is about the quality and nutrient density of food available in communities, which is highly important for dietary intake and prevention of chronic disease. Common Threads, a wellness and nutrition education organization, convened a virtual panel discussion on June 3 featuring Chicago-based experts working to help communities achieve nutrition equity. More than 80 people from across the country joined the event, to listen and learn from panelists Jaye Stapleton, director of social services policy for Chicago’s Office of the Mayor; Angela Odoms Young Ph.D. associate professor of kinesiology and nutrition for the University of Illinois at Chicago; and Jessica Mater, director of programs and operations for America SCORES Chicago.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice K. Jackson Ed.D. provided opening remarks, reflecting on how the district fits into the bigger picture of nutrition equity within the City of Chicago. 

Jackson highlighted CPS’ recent focus on social emotional learning, recess and improving the food options within the district’s schools to help improve student performance, stating that these initiatives are vital in helping children achieve academic success.

According to Jackson, food was a very high priority early in the pandemic given that many students rely on one or two meals per day. Jackson applauded nonprofits like Common Threads who stepped in to help with food distribution programs and other efforts to support families.

“Oftentimes we focus on educational equity and access to high quality programming, but what (Common Threads) really lifts up is the importance of our students being healthy mentally and physically, and the role that nutrition plays in that,” Jackson said.

As the event shifted to the panel discussion, Common Threads Co-Founder and CEO Linda Novick O’Keefe moderated a conversation with Mater, Stapleton and Odoms-Young about the nutrition equity landscape in Chicago, including solutions that have worked and lessons learned.

The city’s Healthy Chicago 2025 initiative seeks to close the racial life expectancy gap, and was built with collaboration, transparency and in mind, Stapleton said. As the pandemic hit, the city rallied organizations from across the community to share ideas and contribute where they could. 

“The city was there and working across departments and agencies, but community partners were working with one another,” Stapleton said. “That sort of collective problem solving can be very powerful.”

One of the organizations that supported wellness efforts to Chicago residents through the pandemic was America SCORES Chicago, a nonprofit that employs physical activity, spoken word and service learning to educate its elementary and middle school students in its programming.

“We’re really focused on helping (students) create healthy choices and understand the connection between healthy choices and their overall physical, mental and emotional health,” Mater said.

Odoms-Young, who has researched nutrition equity for nearly 30 years, highlighted the need to move away from a deficit-based approach and consider the assets a community has built before new interventions are introduced.

“We can’t assume that we’re creating something new,” Odoms-Young said. “We need to understand cultural traditions and legacies, and how do we work together to restore those cultural traditions so people feel supported.

Cultural relevance was an important consideration for the city’s work with food access. Stapleton highlighted senior meals programs that accounted for the cultural significance of food within each region they served.

Stapleton also highlighted the importance of the city’s COVID Racial Equity Rapid Response Team in addressing community needs during COVID. According to Stapleton, Chicago has had the most equitable vaccine distribution in the country through an intentional strategy, and the city plans to take a similar approach with other issues such as food equity and food access.

Speaking to the role that corporations and organizations play in contributing to solutions, Odoms-Young urged community leaders to make sure that they create opportunities for Black and Latinx residents.

“How can we make sure the community is in the lead, and not just in the position of receiving services, but where they’re creating opportunities for the communities they live and work in, and they know closely historically?” Odoms-Young said.

As an example, Odoms suggested a model where people within a community are taught about nutrition, with some of these participants later being trained and employed to teach their peers.

Panelists also spoke to the medical community’s efforts to address health equity within Chicago.

Mater suggested that organizations and healthy systems work collectively at “destigmatizing going to the doctor,” and “bringing folks into spaces where students and families already feel safe.”

Odoms-Young agreed, highlighting programs such as fruit and vegetable prescription programs and housing and health initiatives to address population health.

“The medical community can play a role in multiple ways, both with patients directly, but in the surrounding community to look at economic development and other opportunities as it links to population health,” Odoms-Young said.

Common Threads has seen success through medical partnerships as well, including a culinary medicine class with Northwestern University’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, training Florida International University dietetic interns to deliver summer nutrition education programs at City of Miami and Miami-Dade County Parks, and a new collaboration with UChicago Medicine to deliver cooking and nutrition education programming at Oakwood Shores, a mixed housing community.

As the discussion closed, each panelist shared advice and lessons learned from the past 18 months.  

Stapleton reiterated the importance of considering the community when building programs to support an unprecedented crisis such as the pandemic, suggesting communities, “work with the end user in mind to identify needs and think of the best way to meet those needs.”

Mater highlighted that the pandemic forced organizations like America SCORES Chicago to innovate and reflected on the important work she and her colleagues put in place to transform their soccer instruction into a virtual, at-home, individual exercise. 

Odoms-Young shared her perspective on the need to remain humble given the complexities of work in nutrition equity.

“The work is long and slow,” Odoms-Young shared. “We may not see all of these changes in our lifetime, but the key is to continue the work and train the next generation.”