Central New York project asks kids “What does nutrition security mean to you?”

Concerns over nutrition security in the Central New York community have been on the rise since the pandemic, but the problem isn’t new.

The American Heart Association worked with Jack and Jill of America, Inc. on a new project, sponsored by National Grid, to help raise awareness about what nutrition security really is.

The Nutrition Security Photo Voice Project asked young Central New Yorkers, ranging in age from 5 to 17-year-old, to document what nutrition security and nutrition insecurity mean to them. Participants from the Syracuse chapter of Jack and Jill of America, Inc. took photos and videos of their experiences with nutrition.

“Nutritional security is definitely a health equity issue,” said Dana Zanders of Jack and Jill of America, Inc. – Syracuse Chapter. “We believe that we have the power to make a difference in the lives of children and families.” Submissions from more than a dozen participants from Jack and Jill of America were collected for the photo voice video.

“When we use terms like food insecurity or nutritional security it can feel a bit distant from what we see every day in our community,” said Keri Sweet-Zavaglia, general counsel with National Grid and the upcoming Syracuse Heart Challenge chairwoman. “This project lets you see through the eyes of our youth who submitted photographs that captured the way they felt when asked what nutrition security means to them.”

The video became the centerpiece for a special Community Conversation webinar on nutrition security. The American Heart Association brought together experts from Syracuse Onondaga Food Systems Alliance and Field & Fork Network, along with speakers from Jack and Jill of America, Inc., Syracuse Chapter and sponsor National Grid, to discuss what nutrition security is and how we can improve it in Central New York.

Food insecurity is when a person or family is struggling to get enough food, or has to make tough choices between food and other needs. It is estimated that as many as 1 in 6 households in the US experienced food insecurity in 2020. Although food insecurity is not a new problem, COVID-19 is making it worse.

The photo voice project and webinar focused on another term: nutritional security. Nutritional security emphasizes the importance of essential nutrients. Adequate nutrition security requires the intake of a wide range of foods which provides the essential needed nutrients.

During the digital event, participants shared what the project meant to them. “I really liked the photo voice project,” said Trinity Odom Reed, 10th grade. “I think it brought more awareness to different disparities between communities that otherwise would not have attention brought towards. It was impactful for all ages to self-reflect on our own communities and educate ourselves about nutrition and nutrition disparities in different communities.”

By taking a critical eye to nutrition security, participants said they learned about where some of the problems begin. “I knew what food insecurity was before this project, because, being in Jack and Jill of America, we help to provide food to those who can’t afford it,” said Alan Zanders, 8th grade. “But, this project helped me understand the reasons why some people weren’t able to afford it.”

“All over the world people suffer from nutrition insecurity and not a lot of people know it,” said S. Terrell Willis, 8th grade. “We need to spread awareness, so people don’t have to go to bed hungry.”

Maura Ackerman, facilitator of the Syracuse-Onondaga Food Systems Alliance, shared during the webinar that in Onondaga County, one in 10 people and more than one in six children were experiencing food insecurity even before the pandemic, according to USDA data. Since the pandemic began, rates of food insecurity have been on the rise in many facets of the community.

The American Heart Association is working to address nutrition security in the Syracuse area. Along with the Field and Fork Network, the AHA is advocating to bring Double Up Food Bucks to Onondaga County. The Double Up Food Bucks program gives users of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits the opportunity to double their dollars for fresh fruit and vegetable purchases.

The Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (or GusNIP) was established in 2014 to boost local economies while simultaneously helping to further increase access to healthy food and address hunger challenges. By adding financial incentives to encourage SNAP participants to purchase more fruits and vegetables, these families and individuals are able to improve their diets overall.

The reality is that two-thirds of SNAP participants are children, the elderly and people with disabilities. “Many families across the state struggle with food insecurity,” said Frances McGuire, the program manager for the Double Up Food Bucks New York program at Field & Fork Network. “SNAP benefits help to alleviate this issue by enabling participants to stretch their food dollars and purchase healthier foods, but often times, in reality, it’s not enough money to put healthy food on their plate.”

The Double Up Food Bucks program helps stretch those dollars even further. For example, if you spend $10 from your SNAP EBT Card at a participating farmers market, mobile market, farm stand, small retail location, corner store, or grocery store, Double Up Food Bucks gives you another $10 to buy fresh fruits and veggies grown in New York State.

The American Heart Association and the Field & Fork Network are excited to announce Double Up Food Bucks is coming to four participating locations in the Syracuse area soon. The program will be launched this summer at Brady Market, Brady Farm Stand, Hawley Market, and Syracuse Cooperative Market locations.

Bringing Double Up Food Bucks to Central New York, and especially Syracuse, is just one way the American Heart Association and other advocates are addressing nutritional security. We must continue to advocate for the necessary funding to bring Double Up Food Bucks, and the financial incentives that go along with it, to the region so that all SNAP participants are able to purchase more fruits and vegetables.

Share your voice in the effort to bring more Double Up Food Bucks sites to Central New York by calling your Onondaga County Legislator at (315) 435-2070. You can also sign up to be a You’re The Cure advocate at www.YoureTheCure.org.