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'Nutrition matters': New UNC research offers solutions to income-related nutrition inequities

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First-year Chris Vasallo grows tomatoes in his dorm in Cobb Residence Hall on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023. Vasallo likes to pick and eat the tomatoes from the vine, he said.

A new study contributed to by researchers at UNC has introduced a new simulation modeling the impact of subsidies for fruits, vegetables and healthier foods that are funded by taxes on ultra-processed foods and beverages. 

Under the policy simulations, lower-income households, particularly those without children, purchased less taxed food and beverages compared to those from higher-income backgrounds. Additionally, lower-income households shifted to consuming a higher proportion of healthy options. 

The study was conducted through the Global Food Research Program, an interdisciplinary group housed under the Carolina Population Center that investigates the design and evaluation of food policies within the United States and abroad. 

“Nutrition matters,” co-author Pourya Valizadeh said. “We have disparities in nutrition — lower-income households tend to have lower-quality diets — and we want to have policy interventions that address these socioeconomic status disparities.”

The paper was co-authored by Shu Wen Ng, professor of nutrition at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, and Valizadeh, a research assistant professor at Texas A&M University, who completed the study during a postdoctoral fellowship at UNC. 

There were two main goals with the study, Valizadeh said — simulating the implementation of a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages at the national level and then redistributing the tax in the form of subsidies for other minimally-processed foods. 

“The goal should not necessarily be to collect revenue, but to change relative prices of healthy and unhealthy foods to make a difference in purchases,” Valizadeh said. “Also, return some of these tax revenues to low-income households that have already paid taxes in the form of subsidies.”

Valizadeh said the main benefit for lower-income households in the study was the quality of the calories they consumed. He said those populations consumed less “empty calories,” which are calories that come from foods with little to no nutritional value. 

Rebecca Hankins, development and communications director for the Chatham Outreach Alliance, a nonprofit working to address food insecurity in the Triangle area, said there is often a stigma against individuals who do not make as much money and rely on external assistance for healthy eating, especially considering increased economic growth in areas like Chatham County. 

“There is a lot of fear and things happening here with this tremendous growth: that some part of our community is being left behind,” Hankins said.

Some of CORA’s initiatives include mobile markets, free grocery distribution programs and a community choice food pantry with fresh produce, meat and dairy products.

Hankins said many of the people that CORA serves are in a “balancing act” of paying for necessities such as medication, child care and gas, leaving them little money left to buy food. 

When surveying families who utilize CORA’s resources, Hankins said they expressed wanting more fresh produce and protein. 

“These are real challenges for people — not only in Chatham County, but across the Triangle,” Hankins said. “We find that these situations are affecting more and more people as the cost of living has increased and many salaries have stayed stagnant.”

According to the 2021 Chatham County Health Assessment, cost was reported as a barrier to healthy eating habits in more than 1 in 6 households. CORA distributed 1.28 million meals to over 10,000 individuals last year. 

Senior Checkna Diawara, an undergraduate research assistant for the Global Food Research Program, said it is important to recognize one’s position in the food system when having conversations about food insecurity. 

“I think there is a commonly shared narrative that individuals are mainly responsible for what they consume and how they consume it, and there is some truth to our people having some control over what they put in their bodies,” Diawara said. “But we also have to look at the food environment and policy effects that people are immersed in.”

Valizadeh said projects like his are important because they can shape the policy-making process. 

“Hopefully, when you see people work like this, get attention and impact policy, then that is promising for students that research actually matters,” Valizadeh said.

@dailytarheel | university@dailytarheel.com

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