The Opportunity in the Crisis
Nowhere in the United States has the coronavirus epidemic been so devastating as in the New York City metropolitan area. As of late April, there were over 250,000 confirmed cases in the greater NYC region and over 18,000 COVID-related deaths in the state of New York alone.
Data from the state’s Department of Health are already revealing deadly trends for those with pre-existing health problems. Nearly 90% of the deaths in New York State were of individuals with chronic, diet-related illnesses like high blood pressure and diabetes.
Among younger adults who died from COVID in New York, the prevalence of high blood pressure was three times the national rate for the 18-39 age group. Thus, it appears having high blood pressure could be very risky for younger adults. Similarly, the prevalence of diabetes among COVID victims young and old ranges from two to five times those of the general population.
What we can tentatively conclude from this ordeal is that (1) chronic illnesses, many of which are preventable, may exacerbate death rates from COVID in both young and old, and (2) the epidemic is forcing medical authorities and communities everywhere to contend with the diet-related disease crisis with an urgency never seen before.
This is a moment in which all of us have had to confront health vulnerabilities in ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities. While we’re all doing what we can as individuals to stay healthy in this outbreak, we eventually need to collectively recognize that these vulnerabilities, which affect large swathes of the population, are built into the system by food, agricultural, and economic policies that serve industry interests over public health.
Even in the best of times, hundreds of thousands of people will die each year and tens of millions will suffer from preventable diet-related diseases in service of that profit. When this historic pandemic trickles to a halt and is memorialized in epidemiology textbooks, there will still be millions of lives in the balance.
First and foremost, we need elected officials at all levels of government to commit to a massive reinvestment in public health—not just to deal with outbreaks of novel infectious diseases, but also the decades-long epidemic of preventable chronic disease to which we have all become so desensitized.
In the meantime, however, there is much power that critical institutions can leverage to shape public health within the communities they serve. Whether in schools, healthcare facilities, or worksites, where meals are regularly being served to members of the community, there exists an opportunity to promote truly healthy eating and prevent devastating chronic illnesses.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act sought to do this on a national scale by strengthening the nutrition standards in public schools, but institutional decision-makers need not wait for a federal mandate to make a meaningful impact. Simply by offering an abundance of health-boosting foods—such as whole grains, plant proteins, and fresh produce—and by limiting disease-linked foods like processed meats on menus, a given institution can significantly enhance its customers’ diets with key nutrients and foster better health.
Research is already beginning to show that introducing more plant-rich options in place of conventional meat-based meals encourages all customers to get more produce into their diets, particularly those with the lowest baseline intake of plant-based foods. It is ultimately these plant foods rich in antioxidants, fiber, and essential vitamins and minerals that help prevent and reverse diet-related disease, strengthen our immune systems against invading pathogens, and optimize the health of our families and communities.
Understandably, leaders are currently focused on containing the coronavirus outbreak and mitigating the economic damage of the pandemic. Many schools, worksites, and other institutions remain closed.
However, soon enough, we’ll all go back to work and school, and the American people will still have their health and safety at the forefront of their minds.
Institutions should seize this opportunity to offer, encourage, and simplify healthier dietary choices in service of elevating public health—a common good we should all stop taking for granted.
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the dire state of our nation’s health, and a historic wake-up call such as this must be met with a lucid, monumental response.
We have a chance to save thousands of lives and improve millions more, not by going back to business as usual, but by being deliberate about the food environments we create in our communities as we move forward from this crisis.
Madeline is the Institutional Outreach and Support Manager at Balanced. She holds a B.S. and M.S. in Nutrition from the Univ. of Texas and Tufts, respectively. As a nutrition expert, she advocates for more plant-based dining options in critical institutions with the aim of building healthier food environments and fostering better public health outcomes. You can reach her here: firstname.lastname@example.org
To request information about balancing your institution's menu and receive support (FREE!) one-on-one support from Maddy in doing so, please email Maddy directly or visit our Institutional Support page. From there, you can download a step-by-step guide and get started today!
Balanced is a nonprofit organization providing the tools, resources, and supports for everyday people to advocate for healthier menus in their community institutions. Please support Balanced's mission with a donation of any size today.