Deputy Commissioner Brad Hutton and Commissioner Richard A. Ball
Brad Hutton, deputy commissioner of the New York State Office of Public Health, and Richard A. Ball, commissioner of the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, discuss New York programs connected with health and food access.

The Finger Lakes region is rich in fruit and vegetable farms. Yet in an area of agricultural abundance, 22 percent of the population goes without eating healthy, fresh food. That malnourishment has a profound impact on health outcomes.

The Food, Farms and Health Symposium April 11 at the New York State Wine and Culinary Center in Canandaigua explored the roots of this problem and sparked a dialogue about barriers to fresh food access.

The day featured presentations by Richard A. Ball, commissioner of the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets; Anne Palmer and Caitlin Fisher from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, Bloomberg School of Public Health; and Brad Hutton, deputy commissioner, New York Office of Public Health.

“Economically, environmentally, physically and emotionally, our individual and community health is linked,” said Anne Ruflin, chief planning officer for Common Ground Health, which is co-sponsoring the symposium, along with Foodlink and S2AY Rural Health Network. “Despite the agricultural abundance of our region, there are still so many people experiencing high rates of food insecurity and diet-related problems such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and poor mental health.”

Ruflin noted that the region has a national reputation for its cost-effective health care system and its innovative and growing farm economy.

“Yet the health, food and agricultural sectors continue to work in isolation from one another, even as evidence mounts that the way we farm and the food we eat is interwoven with our health on multiple levels,” she said.

In the Finger Lakes region, 62 percent of adults report being overweight or obese. In addition 32 percent have high blood pressure, 9 percent diabetes and 5 percent prediabetes. Twenty-two percent of the population in the region reports experiencing food insecurity and/or living in food deserts, even though there are nearly 1.5 million acres of land in agricultural production with an estimated market value of over $1 billion in sales.

“Eating well starts with an understanding of where our food comes from, how it’s grown or made, and how to prepare it while preserving its quality and freshness the way our grandparents did and their parents before them,” Ball said. “Some of this knowledge has been lost over the years, but we can help restore it by building relationships between farmers and the people they feed; by providing education about the importance of eating right, starting with our schoolchildren. The state is committed to helping connect those dots and to increasing access to fresh, healthy foods for all New Yorkers.”

“The link between good food and good health is a timeless truth, made famous by Hippocrates who said, ‘Let food be thy medicine,’ ” said Dr. Howard Zucker, commissioner, New York State Department of Health. “We should strive to nourish our communities with what the Earth naturally provides and, in return, we can expect better health.”

“More than 250,000 people in the Finger Lakes region suffer from chronic hunger,” said Julia Tedesco, executive director of Foodlink. “The food insecurity that these individuals experience is not caused by a scarcity of food. In fact, there is an overproduction of food in our country – but millions of people cannot access or afford it.”

“The farmers in our region are hungry for new sources of revenue for their healthy local farm products, while our schools and population in general are hungry for nutritious foods,” said Andrea Haradon, coordinator of the S2AY Rural Health Network. “Yet too many barriers exist in simply linking these local farms with willing buyers.”