Particularly in low-income neighborhoods, school lunch programs provide a safety net for students who would otherwise struggle with hunger. The Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated just how critical they are for children. Organizations like Farm to School encourage school districts to offer budget friendlier options for healthier foods by connecting them with local farms and food producers.
In many parts of the United States, there is a crisis caused by people having limited access to healthy & affordable food options. This in turn is creating a host of health and social problems. What exactly is a food desert? What causes a food desert? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert? How can this problem be solved? Who are the leaders helping to address this crisis?
In this interview series, called “Food Deserts: How We Are Helping To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options” we are talking to business leaders and non-profit leaders who can share the initiatives they are leading to address and solve the problem of food deserts.
As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Sherra Aguirre.
Sherra founded and led a successful business for three decades, winning national awards for entrepreneurship, innovation, and service excellence, before selling the company in 2016 to focus on her passion for healthy diet and lifestyle. Having researched and read extensively about food related chronic diseases, Sherra eliminated her hypertension, despite family history, by making changes in her diet and self-care. As a health enthusiast, environmentalist, and food justice advocate, Aguirre is passionate and writes about the healing qualities of compassion, simplicity, gratitude, and the ripple effect vegan eating can have on individuals, families, and communities.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Thank you. I grew up watching family members struggle with heart disease. My maternal grandfather died of a massive heart attack in his late fifties and my grandmother had a stroke in her seventies that led to partial paralysis. On my father’s side of the family, one aunt died of an aneurism and another from a simultaneous stroke and heart attack; and two younger cousins died suddenly in their forties from heart attacks. My parents were on high blood pressure medicines for as long as I could remember. As a result, I began to read everything I could relating to cardiovascular disease and its causes, particularly diet and lifestyle factors.
I had been mostly vegetarian since the age of thirty and initially thought eliminating meat alone would allow me to avoid the heart disease my family struggled with. In my book, Joyful, Delicious, Vegan: Life Without Heart Disease, I share that in my fifties I was shocked when my blood pressure started to creep upward. I was fortunate to get a referral to a cardiologist who used whole plant-based nutrition to help his patients reduce or eliminate medications. He used a science-based food and nutrition plan to treat the root cause of the problem — the inflammation caused by a diet high in processed foods and animal products, including dairy. It took some time, but I eliminated all medication and achieved normal blood pressure levels. As an unexpected surprise, I also got rid of arthritis pain, sinus congestion, bronchitis and headaches.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
My role as a plant-based health advocate and author is now my second career. Getting my book published as a first-time author has been the most surprising part of the journey, and the part for which I am most grateful. Early in the writing process I found cookbook editor Marah Stets who saw value in my story and the importance of the issue of heart disease. She introduced me to a network of highly talented and accomplished women who are industry veterans in the areas of publishing, editing, illustration, and marketing who made their skills and advice available. It was their encouragement and confidence in me that helped me get my story on the page and my book to market. The lesson for me was that when we follow a big dream, we attract the people and resources to manifest it.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
The tipping point in this second career as an author and food justice advocate happened the moment I realized I was the beneficiary of resources and connections which I never expected to have available to me. I was not a health professional, had never written a book, and was writing about my health journey in the context of my own experience, research and study of the impact of a plant-based diet on heart disease and other chronic illnesses. I now see this as a continuation of the lessons learned in my prior business life: to follow my passion, to be authentic, and to approach people with both the courage and humility to ask for what I believe that I need.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
In addition to the mentors I met on my publishing journey, and my family, I am most grateful to my cardiologist who eight years ago provided me a food plan to improve my heart health and eliminate medications. Dr. Baxter Montgomery has done this for many patients as a patient education addition to his traditional practice of cardiology. He was also gracious enough to provide a blurb of support for my book.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
As I mentioned earlier passion, authenticity and courage have been really important for me. The passion for health and wellness inspired me to write Joyful, Delicious, Vegan: Life Without Heart Disease. I believe it is my authenticity in the way I share my story — the struggles as well as the successes — that resonates with readers. And even when I thought I was not likely to get a yes to a request, I found the courage to ask.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The best things happen when we step into the uncertain.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about Food Deserts. I know this is intuitive to you, but it will be helpful to expressly articulate this for our readers. Can you please tell us what exactly a food desert is? Does it mean there are places in the US where you can’t buy food?
A food desert is defined as an area in the US where at least a third of the people in an urban area live more than one mile away from a supermarket, and at least ten miles away for rural areas. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture this includes about 19 million people in the U.S. who have limited access to fresh whole foods. Access is affected by income, and resources such as transportation to travel to a supermarket. Many urban dwellers who live in food deserts are also what we now call essential workers, who lack the time and money required to make the trip to a distant grocery store.
Can you help explain a few of the social consequences that arise from food deserts? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert?
I would emphasize that social factors are more likely to determine who lives in a food desert in the first place. Typically, people who are socially marginalized based on race, ethnicity and economic status make up the demographics of these areas. People in food deserts are not there by choice. They are our citizens who are the working poor without the economic or political clout to revitalize their communities, or the means to leave them.
Food deserts factor into the health disparities we see among people of color and those at lower income levels. African Americans, native Americans and Hispanic Americans are almost always at the wrong end of any chronic disease statistic. Black women are 60% more likely to have high blood pressure, twice as likely to have a stroke than white women and die at an earlier age than most other groups. American Indians are three times more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than non-Hispanic whites and Hispanic Americans are twice as likely to die from diabetes than whites. Other contributing factors are lack of access to quality healthcare and environmental racism which often relegates these communities to areas near environmental hazards. There is also the toll of chronic stress from all of the above.
Where did this crisis come from? Can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place?
It comes from our American hierarchy of race and class. Immigrants, whether forced here as in the case of American enslavement of Africans, or fleeing persecution to seek a better life, are always a source of free or cheap labor. Their status is an integral part of our economic system. They pay the rents and buy the nutritionally deficient, and highly profitable fast food and convenience store offerings in our food deserts. Those food sources by contrast can be found on almost any corner.
Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact to address this crisis? Can you share some of the initiatives you are leading to help correct this issue?
I wrote my book as an advocate for the importance of whole fresh plant-based foods to begin to reverse the worsening epidemic of diet related chronic illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, obesity and even common cancers. The Covid-19 pandemic exposed the dangers of our declining health profile and life expectancy in the US as well as the frailties of our healthcare system. Along with many others, I am raising the level of awareness on the need to address root causes of chronic diseases and not focus on symptom management. Today the health consequences and policy issues surrounding the standard American diet are the equivalent to those of cigarettes in the 1950s.
My particular focus is on the segments of our population where the outcomes are the most severe. At the same time I support the efforts of organizations like the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) to promote science-based food education and an end to subsidies which fuel the overconsumption of meat and dairy.
Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?
I get to hear from readers who now have their own stories of personal health successes based on changing how they eat. One reader shared the book with her mom who now lives in an assisted living facility. After reading the book her mom asked to meet with the manager of food services and asked for more vegetables and fresh fruit to be included in her meals and explained why that was important.
In your opinion, what should other business and civic leaders do to further address these problems? Can you please share your “5 Things That Need To Be Done To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
- Address income inequalities for the working poor. Ideas like a universal basic income are gaining some traction, as well as educational opportunities and job training as a path for greater income security.
- Nutritional and health education that respects cultural food traditions will help make an impact where it is needed most. This education is also needed for public policy makers who are often not informed of the relationship between nutrition and public health outcomes.
- Support for local small farms and CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture), in which members buy a weekly share of a farm’s produce, can help fill the healthy food gap in food deserts with affordable fresh food.
- Urban community gardens also are a source of fresh, healthy, seasonal foods in many cities. Organizations like Urban Harvest foster support, education and resources for local community garden program. See their website https://www.urbanharvest.org/gardens for more information.
- Particularly in low-income neighborhoods, school lunch programs provide a safety net for students who would otherwise struggle with hunger. The Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated just how critical they are for children. Organizations like Farm to School encourage school districts to offer budget friendlier options for healthier foods by connecting them with local farms and food producers. See more at http://www.farmtoschool.org/about/what-is-farm-to-school.
Are there other leaders or organizations who have done good work to address food deserts? Can you tell us what they have done? What specifically impresses you about their work?
The Center for Good Food Purchasing assists school districts to source food locally from companies that provide healthy, minimally processed foods. It assisted the Oakland Unified School District in California to source more nutritious, higher quality foods while adhering to their budget. They also reduced the amount of animal products served by 30%.
If you had the power to influence legislation, are there laws that you would like to see introduced that might help you in your work?
I would work to eliminate subsidies for meat and dairy products. They are over consumed as a result of the federal subsidies that underwrite the industry’s cost of production and despite the overwhelming preponderance of studies demonstrating the negative public health effects.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would work for reforms in our economic system which support public health and access to healthy food for all.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would enjoy the company of anyone who shares a similar vision, even if they have different ideas on how to achieve it.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Readers can find me at:
This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.