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Addressing Disease with Food Access for All

By: Christine Grillo

BALTIMORE—October 11, 2021. “I want to decouple health from wealth,” says Susan Kornacki. “I want to get food to people.”

From June, 2020 to June, 2021, Susan’s work was all about getting food to people. While the US was steeped in the Covid-19 pandemic and watched its fragile food systems fail the most vulnerable Americans in many ways, she managed the food security programs at the Montgomery County (Maryland) Food Council. Working with food banks and other organizations that provide food assistance, she coordinated efforts to keep volunteers safe, to share data among many organizations providing food, and to make sure that resources were getting to the people who needed them.

“Adjectives fail me,” says Susan, trying to describe that year. “I was deeply worried about everyone around me. I was mindful of my luxury to work remotely. I was processing the extent to which divides in our society were so apparent.”

Early on during the pandemic, she organized weekly hour-and-a-half food security community meetups on Zoom, with up to 125 participants from food banks and other organizations that provide food assistance. At first the focus was on best practices for keeping staff and volunteers safe. Over time, the purpose and function of the calls evolved. A later addition was that providers expressed what they were seeing in the field and shared information about their experiences with big agencies such as Capital Area Food Bank and Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, who were also on the calls, and Susan facilitated conversations about how best to share information effectively.

As funding was coming in from the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act and from philanthropic organizations, there was a need for clear, consistent data to show how the money was being used and what the impact was.  The stakeholders wanted to know where the gaps were: who needed food but wasn’t getting it? Susan did trainings on data collection and ways of closing communications gaps.

“These have been challenging years for people who are new to America,” Susan says. “Providers had to operate with a lot of sensitivity toward people who may have recently moved to the United States, or may have people living with them who recently arrived in the US.”

Susan has deep ties to the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF), where she began exploring the critical role of food systems in public health as a non-degree student in the Food Systems certificate program. After one year of coursework, she joined the Bloomberg American Health Initiative as an MPH fellow, where she focused on Obesity & the Food System. While working on her degree, she met often with her adviser, Anne Palmer, a program director at the Center, and was able to sit in on food policy council meetings, which she says helped her to be able to see the big picture in food systems work. She credits the food systems classes she took as part of her MPH Concentration with helping to develop her multidisciplinary approach.

“In a class like epidemiology, we looked at epidemiology inputs, ways of monitoring and quantifying diseases, and other tools that were very focused on specific diseases or disorders,” she says. “But in my food systems classes, I was able to step back and look at many different inputs that contribute to different health outcomes, within a food system. The food systems classes gave me the framing to begin to layer policy implications on top of a variety of shifting factors in our food system—epidemiological factors but also access challenges, production issues, nutrition awareness, and more.”

In a seafood class taught by Jillian Fry, PhD, currently on faculty at Towson University, she and fellow students looked at the labor force that sources our seafood, and how hard and dangerous the work is. In a class taught by CLF’s Keeve Nachman, PhD, she watched Food Frontiers, a documentary film produced in 2016 by CLF, which helped her evolve some of her thinking about food access and the health care system. In that film, she was introduced to a primary care physician who has integrated a tiny grocery store and cooking classes into her practice.

She’s moved recently from Maryland to upstate New York, but continues to work as a food systems consultant for the Montgomery County Food Council. Looking ahead, her vision involves expanding the role of food in medicine, in order to support people at higher risk for developing diet-related illness. She’d love to work toward a health care model that integrates what we know about the effect of food environments on health, so that, ideally, every primary care setting has a food access component.

“I want to see fresh, nutritious food accessible for everyone, especially communities with higher risk for diet related illness,” she says.

That goal includes people who get their food from food banks. Last summer, the Food Council launched a Farm to Food Bank program to provide additional funding to farms in Montgomery County, Maryland, that were interested in selling their produce to local food assistance organizations. The grant allowed for farmers to sell the food at a fair price point, while also being able to offer produce at a cost that food banks and other providers could afford.

Susan looks forward to continuing to use the multidisciplinary training she received with CLF-driven coursework to pursue policy and program solutions for food system issues. And she’s thankful to CLF mentors for helping her through moments of doubt in her training.

“CLF was not only my intellectual home, it was also a source of emotional support. The Center helped me grow,” she says. “The concentration, my fellow students, the monthly meetings with faculty who took the time to mentor us, the career planning support, and getting to know each other—that’s why I got as much out of my degree as I did.”

More information:

The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) gives students the opportunity to gain a robust understanding of public health challenges as they relate to the food system. The Center directs a concentration for Masters of Public Health (MPH) students at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, as well as a certificate that can be completed by degree students at Johns Hopkins University or non-degree students.

The Bloomberg American Health Initiative is tackling five issues that deeply challenge the nation’s health: addiction and overdose, adolescent health, environmental challenges, obesity and the food system, and violence. The Initiative also has set out to train a new generation of leaders committed to improving health in America.

The Montgomery County Food Council (MCFC) is an independent nonprofit formed and led by professionals, businesses, government officials, community organizations, and educational institutions that broadly represent the food system both substantively and geographically. 

Image: Montgomery County Food Council

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