Challenging Misconceptions and Overcoming Barriers to Foster Healthier Communities
By Julie Eliathamby, Founder of Peoria Grown
Three months ago, Feeding America shared on LinkedIn that 92% of surveyed participants agreed on the transformative power of food as medicine. However, when we examine the images shared on social media by other groups in the hunger space, it becomes apparent that there may be a discrepancy between the ideal vision of food distribution and the current reality in our community.
The health challenges and barriers faced by our families are steadily increasing. Despite their persistent appeals for healthier options, the responses from agencies and organizations are frustratingly delayed and often fail to focus on the right solutions. This combination of delayed and misguided responses has only exacerbated our families' difficulties in their pursuit of better health.
Here is what Peoria Grown has observed and heard over the past four years:
1. We continue to encounter the prevailing notion that lower-income families or individuals relying on emergency food assistance somehow prefer and actively seek out unhealthy food options. Studies have shown that several barriers prevent our families from accessing and consuming healthier food choices. These barriers include the limited availability of affordable fresh produce in low-income neighborhoods, inadequate transportation to grocery stores offering nutritious options, and a lack of access to education and awareness about healthy eating practices. Addressing these barriers and providing viable alternatives is crucial rather than perpetuating the misconception that families inherently desire unhealthy food.
2. The pervasive "beggars cannot be choosers" mentality fails to acknowledge the fundamental human right to access nourishing meals. This mindset suggests that since the food is provided free of charge, families should express gratitude for what they receive, regardless of its nutritional value. However, it overlooks that access to nourishing meals is not merely about filling one's stomach but also about promoting overall health and well-being.
Furthermore, this mentality fails to recognize that one size does not fit all regarding nutrition and health. Individuals may have dietary restrictions, allergies, or specific dietary needs based on their health conditions. It also fails to consider the importance of cultural food. Food is deeply intertwined with culture; for many people, it is essential to their identity and heritage. Ignoring cultural food can lead to a disconnect and a lack of respect for diverse backgrounds and traditions.
The "be grateful you got some food model does not consider these considerations, disregarding and disrespecting the people involved. It is crucial to respect and support the nutritional requirements, dietary restrictions, and cultural preferences of individuals to ensure their well-being and promote inclusive and equitable access to nourishing meals.
3. The prevailing notion suggests that lower-income families possess a specific desire for free items as their primary preference. However, this notion is unequivocally false. In reality, our families share the same fundamental desire for options and choices as any other individual or family.
They do not seek to rely solely on handouts or charity. Instead, they aspire to have the freedom
to make decisions and access a variety of products or services that cater to their specific needs.
When designing solutions or assisting our families, it is crucial to recognize and address their
unique challenges. These challenges may include financial limitations, lack of access to specific
resources, or limited opportunities for upward mobility. Therefore, the options and choices
made available to them must consider these barriers and leverage the existing resources they
By offering a range of alternatives and opportunities, we empower lower-income families to
make decisions that align with their circumstances and aspirations. This approach acknowledges
their autonomy and respects their right to choose what best suits their needs rather than
assuming they only desire free items or have limited preferences. Ultimately, by understanding
and addressing their specific challenges, we can work towards creating a more inclusive and
equitable society where everyone has access to meaningful choices and opportunities,
regardless of their income level.
4. It is a common misconception that lower-income families lack the knowledge and skills to utilize
fresh produce effectively. While this may be true for specific types of produce, it is essential to
recognize that these families' main challenge is not knowing how to cook nutritious meals that
address their health concerns. The issue is not solely about handling fresh produce but about
creating balanced and nourishing meals to help them manage their health issues effectively.
Acknowledging that individuals from various backgrounds may struggle to know what to do with
new fruits or vegetables is crucial. This challenge extends beyond specific cultural groups.
Regardless of their background, everyone may encounter unfamiliar ingredients and may not
have the knowledge or experience to prepare nutritious meals with them.
Therefore, it is vital to provide access to diverse and nourishing food options and the necessary
education, resources, and support to help individuals incorporate these ingredients into their
diets in a meaningful and health-conscious way. By addressing this broader issue, we can empower individuals from all backgrounds to make informed decisions about their nutrition and health, ensuring that everyone can benefit from a wide range of foods while respecting their dietary needs and cultural preferences.
In addition to this challenge, lower-income families also encounter barriers related to the
affordability and accessibility of fresh produce. While fresh produce is generally considered
beneficial for health, it can be more expensive than processed or less nutritious alternatives. As
a result, financial constraints make it difficult for these families to afford and access fresh and
healthy food options consistently.
To address these multifaceted challenges, comprehensive support is necessary for our families.
This support should go beyond teaching cooking skills and extend to guidance on meal planning
for individuals' specific health needs and maximizing available resources. By equipping families
with the knowledge and strategies to prepare nutritious meals, we empower them to overcome
these barriers and enhance their overall well-being. Furthermore, initiatives focused on
improving the availability and affordability of fresh produce in underserved communities can
play a vital role in ensuring equitable access to healthy food options for all.
5. A prevalent misconception insists that individuals must acquire the skills to grow their food to
eat healthily. However, the reality is that the majority of us do not cultivate our sustenance. It is
unjust to discredit someone's understanding of healthy eating solely because they haven't
personally grown the food they consume. Moreover, it is unfair to blame individuals because
they do not possess the extra time or labor to do so.
Furthermore, it is essential to recognize that not everyone can grow their food, even if they
possess the knowledge and skills. In some neighborhoods, the soil conditions may not be
conducive to agriculture, making it impractical or impossible for individuals to cultivate their
produce. This limitation extends beyond personal choice or effort and highlights the importance
of accessible alternatives for obtaining nourishing meals.
Instead of burdening individuals to grow their food, it is crucial to promote equitable access to
affordable and nutritious food options. This includes supporting local farmers, farmers markets,
and other initiatives that provide access to fresh, healthy food for individuals living in areas with
limited agricultural opportunities. By acknowledging these systemic barriers and working
towards inclusive solutions, we can ensure that everyone has the opportunity to make informed
choices about their diet and enjoy the benefits of healthy eating, regardless of their ability to
grow their food.
6. Another persistent urban legend we repeatedly encounter revolves around the notion that
lower-income families must be taught how to budget effectively. This narrative stems from
anecdotes where individuals allegedly witnessed families using government assistance cards to
purchase food items like lobster or expensive steaks. However, it is essential to approach such
anecdotes cautiously, as they can perpetuate harmful stereotypes and misunderstandings about
individuals relying on government assistance.
It is important to remember that even those with limited financial resources are allowed to
celebrate. Everyone deserves moments of celebration, regardless of their financial situation.
Recognizing and respecting the human need for celebration and joy is crucial, regardless of
one's financial circumstances.
Furthermore, avoiding making assumptions about someone's overall food choices based on a
single purchase is essential. Food preferences and dietary needs can vary significantly among
individuals and families, and it is unfair to judge someone's entire food consumption based on a single item or event. People have diverse tastes and preferences, and their food choices should be respected without presuming their financial situation or the appropriateness of their
We promote empathy and understanding by challenging these misconceptions and recognizing
that individuals, including those receiving government assistance, have the right to celebrate and find joy in their lives. Acknowledging that these stories are mere anecdotes should not
overshadow the systemic barriers preventing families from accessing affordable and nutritious
foods is crucial. Implying that these families lack the knowledge or intelligence to make sound
decisions only perpetuates harmful stereotypes.
These narratives permeated our community when Peoria Grown first took shape. If we had succumbed to any of these beliefs, our programs would never have come into existence, let alone achieve the remarkable success they have attained.
Not only are these narratives fundamentally untrue, but they also inflict significant harm, deflecting
attention from the underlying issues at hand. Despite the expenditure of billions of dollars each year,
these narratives represent the primary reasons why numerous food and nutrition programs need to
catch up on their intended impact. They consistently emphasize the wrong priorities.
The solution is unequivocal. The foremost and unwavering priority for all hunger agencies, shelters,
pantries, schools, after-school programs, and food banks should be to ensure that nutrition takes center stage at every level when providing for our families. This necessitates offering our families the same access to quality food that we would unreservedly provide for our own loved ones. By shifting our focus and aligning our efforts with this essential principle, we can begin to address the core issues at hand and foster sustainable change within our community.