The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) declared April “National Minority Health Month” and the Obama Administration took this opportunity to address serious health disparities in minority communities. Late in April, the White House hosted the first ever Minority Health Bloggers Townhall featuring HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, with Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin and famous restaurateur and lifestyle coach B. Smith as panelists.
During the Townhall, Administration officials touted the successes of the Affordable Care Act (or, “Obamacare,” as it’s more popularly known). Right now, as a result of the Act, more than 5 million African Americans have coverage for preventive services like cancer, diabetes, and blood pressure screenings without deductibles or co-pays. Beginning in 2014, they explained, millions more will have access to high-quality and affordable health care under this law. In the interim, the Act increases funding for community health centers that provide care irrespective of a patient’s ability to pay, which should double the number of patients served by 2015.
But while increasing access to health care is a major step towards ending health disparities in minority communities, the Administration acknowledges that these policies must also be coupled with individual lifestyle changes. In light of this fact, the Administration has created several online tools to help Americans who want to make healthier food and lifestyle choices. To find out more about these tools, EBONY spoke with United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) officials Audrey Rowe, the administrator for the Food and Nutrition Service and Dr. Robert Post, deputy director of the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion.
EBONY: Last year the USDA launched the MyPlate tool, which replaces the food pyramid image we are so accustomed to. Tell us more about the MyPlate initiative.
ROBERT POST: Well, we know that dietary health has not been what it should be and we’ve seen staggering trends of obesity and chronic illnesses in minority communities and we are working to change that. The food pyramid image just wasn’t inspiring enough people to make healthier choices, so when we [and HHS] were coming up with the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, we thought of a fresh, new approach using an image of the dinner plate, instead.
The MyPlate icon is a powerful visual cue that reminds people about which food groups should be on their plate and what portions of those food groups they should consume if they want to make healthier choices. We support it with a variety of tools ChooseMyPlate.gov, such as the Super Tracker which we released in December 2011 and allows you to keep track of the foods you’re eating, as well as monitor the nutritional value of foods you’d like to eat.
AUDREY ROWE: I started using the Super Tracker myself after I received very disturbing news from my doctor about my vital signs, so I use it to help me monitor what I am eating. The sodium in my diet was off the charts and so I had to rethink the products that I purchase. Even though it says “low sodium” on the front of the package, you’ve got to flip [the package] around and see what the label on the back says in regards to the amount of sodium in the product. We should not be consuming more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, and even less than that if you have hypertension.
EBONY: The Administration is doing a lot of great things to increase access to healthier food choices in schools and in lower-income communities where grocery stores and farmers’ markets are hard to come by. But even with this increased access, we’re still battling years of bad habits when it comes to the food we eat and the amount of exercise we get. How can people break those bad habits?
RP: It’s going to take awhile to get to change your behavior, but awareness is the first step. And we’re definitely doing our part to make people more aware. We’ve already got 600,000 registered users and have had 34 million page views at ChooseMyPlate.gov.
AR: I agree, and I believe people want to eat healthy and just don’t know where to start. Like you mentioned, the most important thing is giving people access to healthy foods we’re working very hard to do that. We’ve expanded the Women Infants and Children’s program (WIC) to include a new set of menus that are low in fat and sodium and high in grain. And we’re working very aggressively to get all farmers’ markets to be SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] eligible. And we’ve also created recipes to teach people how to prepare the food they’re buying, because it doesn’t do a lot of good if you buy the food and add a great deal of sodium or fat to it. We’ve also been working with people to develop recipes for schools so kids can take them home with them and help their parents eat healthier, too.
We’re also getting local chefs, mayors, city officials and faith groups involved in not only changing federal policies, but state, city and local policies too. And we’re working very closely with First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign to increase physical activity in kids and adults alike.
So for those who are trying to get healthy, it may take weeks or months before you’re able to get your mind around making these important lifestyle changes. But the important thing for people to know is that you can change your lifestyle and there are resources out there to help you.