New Americans and Access to Good Food: What Do We Know and What Aren’t We Asking?

By Cheryl Herrick

If you’re paying attention to food systems work and research in recent years, you know that terms like “food access” and “food desert” and “food insecurity” are ones that are used a lot. They stem from concern for individuals and communities and their ability to adequately address hunger, as well as positing that there are systems that impact access and, too often, a lack of access, to healthy, nutritious, culturally appropriate food.


There are many disciplines and types of helping professionals that work in the area of food access. Most tend to rely on the same data and measurement tools to describe the scope of how food insecurity occurs in American communities.

But what if the measurement tools we use only work for some people? What if the questions we’re asking are specific to people born in America to acculturated families? Center Director Linda Berlin, whose research focuses on different elements of food access, began to suspect that researchers were not getting an accurate picture of the food security status of recent arrivals in America.

Now she and a team of UVM students from the Food Systems graduate program and the Master of Science in Dietetics program are testing a new model, based on the idea that people from different cultures, and with widely different life experiences, might define food security very differently.

Part of the work involves delving into the complexity of how people make food choices. What happens when people who are still learning English have to read labels? What is it like when the things that were very expensive at home (like certain canned items) are cheap here in the US, but items that were affordable at home (like vegetables) are prohibitively expensive here? How does having a newly arrived child eating food at school affect preferences, and maybe subsequent purchase and consumption decisions for the whole family?

Like nearly all areas of work within the food systems, the answers are likely to be complex and nuanced. And some might ask—why does it matter anyway? Berlin says, “It matters not just because of any humanitarian obligation, and not only because we think it is the right thing for us to address hunger among our newer neighbors, but there’s a very practical outcome. With better information we can make sure that we’re delivering the right programs, in the right ways, in the ways they’re actually needed. This will both help us be more effective in addressing hunger and food insecurity, and more cost-effective in the funding we devote to the effort.”

We’ll share results and observations as they become available. In the meantime, contact Linda via email at if you’re interested in learning more about this work.

-Cheryl Herrick manages communications and the office at the Center for Sustainable Agriculture and lives, writes, and cooks in Burlington.

This piece was originally published in the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture newsletter.

Posted in: Economic
Tags: , , .