Lawrence Fellow researches power inequality in food systems

January 31, 2022 by Renee Fischer

Mixed-income communities signal a potential solution


With cultural, societal, and economic factors at work, ensuring that all Baltimore residents have access to nutritious food is more complicated than it first appears, according to Darriel Harris, SPH ’21 (PhD), the inaugural Cynthia and Robert S. Lawrence Fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF).

“In areas where there are predominantly Black residents, the availability of healthy, nutritious food is very slim. But in those same areas, there’s a plethora of unhealthy food options,” Harris says. “So, if you live there, it just becomes the thing to do, to consume unhealthy food and even celebrate that, rather than some healthier, nutritious choices.”

Therefore, addressing healthy food priority areas — neighborhoods with restricted access to foods like fresh fruits and vegetables — requires partnering with communities about their priorities and looking at the obstacles preventing grocery stores from locating there naturally, Harris says. “Food apartheid” has also become a popular term for these areas because it acknowledges the structural and systemic underpinnings surrounding food access, he adds.

“One in four African American children are living in areas with poor access to healthy food, whereas about one out of 10 or 11 white children have the same issue,” Harris says.

The CLF conducted a 2018 study which found that 23% or 144,000 people in Baltimore are food insecure, including 30,000 children. Because lower incomes, limited available transportation, and lack of nearby grocery stores all contribute to food insecurity, the report concluded one potential solution would be the “de-clustering” of poverty.

“More mixed-income housing will alleviate some of the challenges with food inequity because healthy food will be more readily available to a larger swath of the population,” Harris says, adding higher income residents expect certain services like convenient grocery stores.

Harris became interested in how nutrition affects health in 2013 when he returned to Maryland after working as a missionary in South Sudan. While he met people there who suffered from malnutrition, he realized friends and family back home were eating unhealthy diets that had too many empty calories, diets that can lead to a shortened life span.

His first foray into the nutrition field was through the CLF’s Baltimore Food and Faith Project, where he utilized scripture as a means to communicate health messages to religious audiences. Harris also enrolled at the Bloomberg School of Public Health where he received the C. Sylvia and Eddie C. Brown Community Health Scholarship as well as the CLF-Lerner Fellowship. His current fellowship is named in honor of both Cynthia and Robert S. Lawrence, founder of the CLF.

“I had passion. I had drive, but the Brown Scholarship, the CLF-Lerner Fellowship, and now the Lawrence Fellowship have allowed me the capacity to learn. They’ve given me stipends and support for my family and my home while I was studying and put me in connection with people who have a variety of expertise,” says Harris, adding his public health education taught him how to do qualitative and quantitative research.

As part of the Lawrence Fellowship, Harris has helped design a two-year community of practice training course for local and state municipal food policy councils across the country. He will teach portions of the course, which covers environmental factors related to food inequity and explores ways to propose and advocate new policies to address the problem.

In addition, Harris will be involved in a portfolio of research and practice activities related to public health implications for people living adjacent to industrial food animal production (IFAP) operations. Harris will also provide technical assistance to CLF partner organizations working to address IFAP-related environmental justice issues and the public health impacts on local communities.

“It’s a great honor for me to be the inaugural Lawrence fellow because I think the world of Robert Lawrence, and Cynthia, his wife. Robert Lawrence was a gracious mentor for me; he’s made a huge impact in the food world abroad and widely, but also here at Johns Hopkins. I hope to honor their legacy and do some work that is beneficial and something that he would celebrate,” Harris says.

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