Frontiers in Food

November 10, 2020

Food is at the heart of all public health issues, from malnutrition to cancer, climate change to disaster response. Columbia Mailman School creates the science that puts food and health at the center, offering students unique opportunities to examine how we truly are what we eat, and to change our future for the better.

In mid-March, when first-year MPH student Lauren Battle left Washington Heights to shelter in place at her parents’ home in Cleveland, she thought she was doing what she could to protect the health of her community. Over the next three weeks, however, a more nuanced picture of vulnerability emerged: As coronavirus deaths and complications in the United States skyrocketed, communities of color and those in low-income neighborhoods were being hardest hit. The virus was exacting an especially high toll among those also afflicted with heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure—all of which can be linked to long-term dietary patterns and food insecurity. For Battle, the role of the United States’ web of farmers, processors, distributors, retailers, and governing policies—its food system—in the health risks of fellow African Americans was hard to ignore.

Food nourishes more than our bodies—it feeds our spirit. We invite a special someone to a family dinner, deliver casseroles to mark births and deaths, and pass down recipes across generations. That synergy of body and spirit sparked the imagination of Sandra Albrecht, MPH ’04, PhD, when, as a graduate student in Social Epidemiology, she first learned of the immigrant paradox. In brief: Despite their experience of racism in the U.S., as well as their typically lower income and educational attainment, recent immigrants exhibit better health than native-born Americans. The longer they—and future generations—live in the U.S., however, the more their health profile suffers.

Growing up in the ’80s, Albrecht learned Spanish before English and savored the flavors of her mother’s Ecuadorian homeland. In their Queens kitchen, fresh seafood became citrus-sparked ceviche, yuca flour became sweet pan de almidon, and potatoes were transformed into llapingacho patties. For this social scientist, the immigrant paradox posed more than a philosophical curiosity—it was personal.

Now an assistant professor of epidemiology, Albrecht has spent the past decade analyzing datasets, trying to understand how the paradox works and sorting out what factors protect against the metabolic disorders of depression, diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure among new Americans. She’s investigated how neighborhood ethnic composition affects the diet, physical activity, and health measures of residents; analyzed the role of parenting practices in the diets consumed by Hispanic children in the U.S., and teased out the relative power of immigrant enclaves to buffer depressive symptoms among residents. This spring, she received a junior faculty grant from Columbia’s Office of the Provost to explore how living in an ethnic enclave in the U.S. affects the diet quality and choices of a large sample of Hispanic and Latino adults from diverse cultures of origin. “There’s enormous variation in language, culture, and how people eat,” says Albrecht. “What makes one group experience poor health and another does not?”

A Taste of the Food Curriculum

Popular courses explore how food is at the center of many critical public health issues.

HPMN P8589: The Food Justice Movement: What Does it Mean for Public Health? with Mark Bittman casts a close eye on the policies that promote healthy populations. Guest speakers—including food experts, labor advocates, scientists, members of the government, and journalists—explore the impact of health disparities, worker rights, and climate change on access to food.

EHSC P8311: Basic and Applied Nutritional Sciences examines the connection among basic research, applied research, and programs and policy decisions related to nutrition. Mary Gamble, PhD, uses a case-study approach to examine hotly debated nutritional issues.

SOSC P6750: Confronting Obesity: Society, Structures, and Policy provides an overview of the sociocultural factors associated with the obesity epidemic. Gretchen Van Wye, PhD, has students identify promising strategies for intervention and assess multipronged solutions to this multifactorial problem.

POPF P8648: Food and Nutrition in Complex Emergencies with Jeanette Bailey, MSc, PhD, and Casie Tesfai, MSc, leverages real-life scenarios and examples in which students learn how to develop and deploy nutrition program assessments in emergencies, among populations that are often already undernourished.

EPID P8403: Nutritional Epidemiology, taught by Sandra Albrecht, MPH, PhD, explores the methods involved in determining the role of nutrition in the causes of various disease states.

SOSC P8792: Dissemination and Implementation Science examines the gap between knowledge and behavior. Rachel Shelton, ScD, MPH, helps students eliminate this gap and facilitate the successful dissemination, implementation, and sustainability of evidence-based practices.

Explore our Course Directory to find all available classes related to Food Curriculum, Nutrition, and more.

Writer Sharon Tregaskis is the former editor of Columbia Public Health. She raises an assortment of vegetables on a small farm in New Yorks Finger Lakes region.