Racial health disparities a major political, social issue

Panel discussion focuses on solutions, education

by Tara Bannow

Nine out of nine studies examined by University of Minnesota researchers show that predominately black communities are less likely to have supermarkets compared to others. âÄúThey either have to travel really far or visit a convenience store to get food,âÄù Melissa Nelson Laska, assistant professor in the School of Public Health, said. âÄúThe healthy foods they need just arenâÄôt available.âÄù The team was examining the issue of âÄúfood deserts,âÄù areas of the U.S. that lack access to healthy food. Fortunately, racial health disparities are getting a lot of attention, and were the focus of a panel discussion aimed to educate and raise awareness Thursday night. The Obama AdministrationâÄôs announcement of a $400 million initiative to bring healthy food retailers to underserved communities brought the issue to the forefront last week. Meanwhile, first lady Michelle Obama is headlining the fight against child obesity with her LetâÄôs Move campaign, promoting healthier food in schools, more active children and making healthy food affordable. In addition, laws that are in the works would provide incentives to bring supermarkets to underserved communities, Laska said. National initiatives aim to bring healthy food to corner stores and convenience stores, which for many is their main source of food. FarmerâÄôs markets and community gardens are important in the fight against health disparities, Laska said. In 2008, there were 4,685 farmerâÄôs markets in the U.S. The American Community Gardening Association estimates there are about 18,000 community gardens in the U.S. and Canada. President ObamaâÄôs 2011 budget could add an extra push, as it proposes an extra $5 million go toward the U.S. Department of AgricultureâÄôs Farmers Market Promotion Program. Brenda Johnson, a leader in the African American AIDS Task Force, educates people about the dangers of sexually-transmitted infections and said sheâÄôs not afraid to be blunt when talking about sex. In her role at the Hennepin County Medical Center, Johnson said she sees a disproportionate number of black people diagnosed with HIV. While black populations make up only 12.5 percent of U.S., they comprised just more than 50 percent of the HIV cases in 2009. Many of the cases result from careless sex, she said, especially when alcohol is involved. âÄúItâÄôs like drinking and driving,âÄù she said. âÄúI wish people would educate on the dangers of drinking and having sex.âÄù Much of the health disparity exists because racism has become institutionalized, said José González, director of the Office of Minority and Multicultural Health in the Minnesota Department of Health. âÄúItâÄôs not so much âÄòthat happened in that homeâÄô but rather, âÄòthatâÄôs the problem with Mexicans,âÄôâÄù he said, âÄúVersus, âÄòno, that just happened in that family.âÄôâÄù The event was sponsored by the Minority Association of Pre-Medical Students, Black Student Union and the African Student Association. Dan-Tam Phan Hoang, senior biology major and MAPS programming chair, said she didnâÄôt realize how large the health disparities among minority populations were until she really looked into it. âÄúWeâÄôre trying to educate everyone,âÄù she said. âÄúThe more people are educated about it, the more likely they are to help.âÄù