Food Deserts: Markita Lewis Of Wellness Verge On How They Are Helping To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options

The definition of a food desert encompasses a few things. A food desert is a geographical area where grocery stores and other places to buy affordable and fresh, healthy food are too far away to be easily accessible without needing a vehicle. Digging a little deeper, the term food apartheid addresses the social factors that contribute to food inequities.

Markita Lewis, MS, RD is a registered dietitian and a freelance health and wellness writer practicing in the Los Angeles area. Markita earned her undergraduate degree in Nutrition and Food Sciences with a concentration in dietetics from Louisiana State University (LSU) and graduated as a University Medalist in 2014.

Markita completed her Master’s degree in Foods and Nutrition Sciences and dietetic internship at the University of Georgia in 2016. Her thesis focused on Southern cultural foodways amongst adult participants in a SNAP-Ed program and how programs could be tailored to become more culturally relevant to participants.

Markita’s career began as an inpatient dietitian for one of the largest public hospitals in the country. While the majority of her acute care work was centered around general medicine patients, she also provided medical nutrition therapy (MNT) for a variety of patients in the Adult ICU wards and the Pediatric ICU.

After spending three years as an inpatient dietitian, Markita transitioned her career focus to providing outpatient care. She recently provided nutrition counseling and MNT to patients from several clinics across a multi-hospital system, including a Diabetes Complex Care clinic.

As a dietitian, she is committed to providing individualized and patient-centered care to empower her clients in making health choices to improve their wellbeing.

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?

I’m happy to do this interview! Well, my path to becoming a dietitian started when I was very young. When I was three years old, my mom got me my first cookbook, and I was convinced that I would be a chef. Over time, however, I realized that I didn’t have quite the expansive palate that an expert chef needed, and I looked for an alternative. When I was about 12 years old, I found out that a career as a dietitian was the perfect mix of my desires to help people and have a career in food — ever since then, being a dietitian was the way for me!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

The most interesting story? Well, when you’ve worked in one of the largest public hospitals in the country, you have a lot of interesting and memorable stories. I’ve experienced some very unique personalities, food preferences, beliefs about food and nutrition, and situations over the past years. They all seemed to have something in common, which was the importance of listening. There have been times when I’ve been the only medical professional a patient really wants to speak to, or I’ve been specifically requested by patients being taken care of by other dietitians because we’ve connected so well. All of these experiences have been interesting windows into the human experience and how we interact with each other.

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?

I believe that a tipping point in my career was March 2018, when I first started doing freelance writing. I was feeling somewhat stagnant in my hospital job and knew that I needed an outlet to embrace the dynamic aspects of nutrition that I always enjoyed. One day on Facebook, I saw that a dietitian was looking for writers for a new dietitian writing service and decided to put in my sample article. Since then, I’ve written for several brands and developed a name for myself as a writer.

The biggest lesson that I learned from that experience is to take a chance on yourself. Not all ventures out into the unknown are successful, but some of them are!

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?

I would be lying if I didn’t say that my mom is a significant person who got me to where I am today. She taught me the joy of food, curiosity about the world, writing and reading for fun, about believing in myself. All of these things are cornerstones of how I got to this point.

Besides her, some people have helped me significantly over the years. To name a few, the leaders at LSU’s McNair Program, faculty and staff from LSU’s School of Nutrition and Food Sciences, and the faculty from UGA’s Department of Nutrition Sciences.

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?

Empathy, communication, and vision. I’ve seen all sorts of leadership over the past years, and I truly believe these traits were instrumental to my success. Empathy helps me connect to coworkers and clients to feel understood and help all of our needs get met. You can’t truly thrive in a career like nutrition without listening. Being an active listener has helped me do the most good for the people around me. Sometimes I’ve had people who just needed someone to hear them instead of pushing an agenda. I’ve had patients who shared details with me because I listened, and I’ve been able to do more to improve their quality of care. As for vision, I actually have a vision board in my room for the kind of life I want to live and the things I want to achieve. It’s helped as a focus for me to get things done. Fun fact: my vision board has a recipe for boiled crawfish on it because I love crawfish!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“You’ll always miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” — Wayne Gretzky

It’s a simple quote, but it’s always relevant. Many of the significant decisions in my life have been about taking a risk, and they’ve paid off well. Years ago, I took a risk by applying to the McNair Scholars Program to get involved with research as an undergraduate student. I managed to get in, and from there, I was involved in research, presented at conferences, published a scientific article, and chose to do a dietetic internship that included a graduate degree. I still use those skills that I gained through that program to this very day in my career, and it’s been ten years since I took that “shot.”

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?

The definition of a food desert encompasses a few things. A food desert is a geographical area where grocery stores and other places to buy affordable and fresh, healthy food are too far away to be easily accessible without needing a vehicle. Digging a little deeper, the term food apartheid addresses the social factors that contribute to food inequities.

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?

The most apparent social consequence that comes from a food desert is the negative impact on health. In a food desert, it’s difficult to get healthy foods to have adequate nutrients, and the foods that you can get can typically increase your risk of different chronic diseases. When you consider that food deserts often may go hand in hand with health inequities, it’s a perfect storm for people getting serious health complications that could have been avoided.

Other consequences include lost time from making the extra effort to get groceries — this limits the time that could have been spent on family bonding, relaxation, daily tasks, and so much more. It creates greater stress, which we all know can cascade to impact both the mind and body negatively.

Where did this crisis come from? Can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place?

There are multiple factors that led to this crisis, and they are the factors that also impact other areas of our lives beyond food access.

Urban sprawl increased automobile dependence, and auto companies strongly lobbied against vital public transportation, affecting many. Historically, Black people and other minorities had limited opportunities for entrepreneurship, which made it challenging to create local grocery stores for their communities. Poverty and wage inequalities affect the kinds of stores developers are willing to place in certain areas to prioritize profitability over community needs. Racism and segregation also affect the quality of stores in communities and the products available in these stores. It’s a web of factors that some people are slow to correct on a nationwide scale.

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?

My current work isn’t centered around food deserts, but I do participate in and support organizations that advance the goals of making food more accessible to communities, especially marginalized communities.

I support the Los Angeles Food Policy Council and am currently a part of their Good Food Purchasing Policy working group. Outside of this, I have participated in demonstrations supporting food vendors, written letters to legislators about food policy, and I donate to organizations when I can.

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 feel the proudest when I’m able to make something “click” for a patient. Once, a patient had type 1 diabetes that was complicated by weight loss no matter how much she ate, wide blood sugar fluctuations despite taking her insulin properly, and frequent diarrhea that had been going on for a year. Her doctors had tried everything, even with the help of a previous dietitian. But then I made some suggestions for a particular test, and they could figure out the problem. Later that month, when I called that patient for an update, she was crying because she felt normal for once. She could eat without immediately running to the bathroom. She didn’t have to eat nearly every hour to keep weight on — in fact; she’d gained some weight. Her blood sugars were even stabilizing! We were both excited about her progress and newfound peace of mind. I live for those moments when I can help make a difference in someone’s life and make things easier for them.

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.

5 Things That Need To Be Done To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options:

1. Increase the number of hospital-based food programs. This can be in the form of having a public garden with produce available, Food Pharmacies that give tailored food packages based on health conditions, farmer’s markets at the hospital, or general food giveaways.

2. Increase urban farming. Our society has shifted into being one where people barely have a direct hand in the growing of food, and I think making personal or community gardens more available can help people have greater access to food.

3. Improve transportation infrastructure. Especially in rural areas, there are limited options for consistent and timely public transportation, making shopping and transporting food difficult for people who don’t have regular access to a car.

4. Build grocery stores and food spaces in strategic areas. Businesses should invest in communities not just for economic profit but to address community needs. Produce markets, grocery stores, and farmer’s markets are great opportunities for businesses and communities. City planning and initiatives can help bring these things to communities.

5. Reduce wage inequality so that people can make a living wage. Working as a dietitian, I have often heard that people do not buy fruits and vegetables because they cannot afford them. Employers should pay employees a wage that supports not only paying the bills but a healthy lifestyle. Initiatives like universal basic income, management of inflation relative to income,

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? Perhaps we can reach out to them to include them in this series.

The first organization that comes to mind is the non-profit organization SÜPRSEED. Most people may be familiar with SÜPRMRKT LA, their initiative to provide low-cost organic produce and groceries to the South Central LA community. Not only do they sell produce to the community, but SÜPRMRKT LA also has events to give away free produce and educate the community on food justice. SÜPRMRKT LA takes its mission to end food apartheid a step further and is currently working on opening a physical organic grocery store in South Central through the #KeepSlausonFresh campaign.

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?

There are laws on the micro and macro levels that I would like to see introduced to improve food equity and reduce food apartheid. First, introducing zoning laws that permit people to grow gardens in urban spaces and have more community access to produce. On a larger scale, laws that support small-sized farms and farms owned by people of marginalized genders and races would do much to improve the lives of people affected the most by food apartheid.

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. :-)

A movement that I’ve seen recently that I hope continues to grow in strength is the mutual aid movement. It’s a return to community empowerment that fosters relationships and empathy in others. I’m from Louisiana, so I was deeply invested in what was going on during and after Hurricane Ida. So many mutual aid groups in addition to local organizations did so much in providing food, supplies, helping with clean-up, and so much more to various Louisiana communities. Even outside of natural disasters, I’ve seen mutual aid groups do great day-to-day things for their communities.

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. :-)

If I’m having a meal with someone involved with food justice, it would have to be Alexis Nikole Nelson, the Black Forager. I love her enthusiasm for life, reigniting the interest in foraging and Black environmentalism, and I’m pretty sure whatever food we eat would be amazing. If it’s not a food person, I would love to share a meal with author Neil Gaiman. He’s one of my favorite writers!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I can be found on my personal website, Wellness and Chill, at www.wellnessandchill.com. You can find me on social media @theacrodietitian on Instagram. And I regularly write for WellnessVerge, a resource portal that helps people make informed decisions about health and wellness products.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.

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