Infrastructure: The overlooked component of nutrition

by Keith Nunes
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Much has been written about the nutritional quality of the foods and beverages available to consumers. But a less obvious but still crucial element is having the infrastructure necessary to prepare, deliver and store the foodstuffs properly. As public health officials have researched the complexities behind the rise in nationwide obesity rates they have gravitated toward a variety of contributing factors. One beginning to garner more attention is infrastructure related to the retail availability of nutritious products and older school facilities that may limit types of foods served to children.

The American Society of Civil Engineers publishes its “Report card for America’s infrastructure” every four years in an effort to highlight the United States’ most pressing infrastructure needs. Such an exercise may be beneficial for the food and beverage industry as well. It may bring to light areas of greatest need and reveal opportunities that were previously unknown.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has done yeoman’s work developing a database of food deserts throughout the country. Earlier this year the Economic Research Service introduced its Food Access Research Atlas, which is an update of the department’s Food Desert Locator. The atlas is an improvement over the Food Desert Locator, because it provides more detail about rural and urban regions of the country where limited access to retail sources of healthy food may make it more difficult for some consumers to eat a healthy diet.

The original version of the Food Desert Locator used a single measure to identify food deserts: low-income areas where a number of residents are at least 1 mile in urban settings and 10 miles in rural areas from a supermarket. In the new Food Access Research Atlas, a number of indicators are used to identify underserved regions.

As retailers continue to seek new areas of opportunity, tools like the U.S.D.A.’s Atlas may provide insight. While the complexities associated with retail store placement and management are great, one cannot ignore the potential opportunities, either.

Schools are another area in which the impact of infrastructure shortcomings should be considered. In its 2013 report card, the American Society of Civil Engineers said that nearly half of America’s public school buildings were built to educate the baby boomers — a generation that is now retiring from the workforce. Public school enrollment is projected to gradually increase through 2019, yet state and local school construction funding continues to decline.

National spending on school construction has diminished to approximately $10 billion in 2012, about half the level spent prior to the recession, while the condition of school facilities continues to be a concern for communities. It is now estimated the investment needed to modernize and maintain the nation’s school facilities is at least $270 billion or more. However, due to the absence of national data on school facilities for more than a decade, a picture of the condition of our nation’s schools remains incomplete.

Food industry executives who have worked in the school nutrition market understand the variability that exists in school kitchen facilities. Within the same region, even the same district, the quality of the facilities may vary greatly. While one school may have an up-to-date facility that features appropriate cooking and storage equipment, another school may lack some of the most basic pieces of equipment. Such situations make it difficult for food processors and distributors to develop ingredients and products that may be added to menus consistently throughout the school nutrition program.

Infrastructure issues are not new; nor are they easily addressed. But the importance of infrastructure must not be overlooked as public health officials seek to address issues such as obesity. Developing and producing nutritious products are only two pieces of a very complex puzzle. Making sure consumers gain access to such products is equally important.

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