Why race and class matter at Friedman

“It is time to refocus, reinforce and repeat the message that health disparities exist and that health equity benefits everyone.” – Former Secretary, Health & Human Services Kathleen G. Sebelius 

We as nutrition students are well aware of the research showing that race and socioeconomic status are responsible for significant health and nutrition disparities in the United States. Diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and hypertension rates are all higher in non-white, minority populations. As future practitioners, educators, researchers and leaders in the nutrition field, we can’t adequately address diet-related chronic diseases and other critical nutrition issues without also wrestling with issues of race and class.

As eventual actors in the nutrition field, we must engage with the reality of society at large. We have to realize that the lack of social justice that exists in our country will inevitably inform our nutrition and health work. As Friedman students, many of us hope to improve the lives of people in need. Working toward health equity is the most important part of this goal. Achieving health equity would benefit each member of our society and this objective must be a foundational part of our understanding of health and nutrition interventions.

To truly grapple with the lack of health equity, we must ask two questions: first, what are its underlying causes? Second, how will health disparities inform our experience at Friedman and beyond?

At the root of health disparity in the U.S. is our country’s deep history of racial discrimination and plunder. This shameful record manifests itself today through starkly unequal access to quality education, basic resources, adequate health care services and healthy, affordable food. We must ask ourselves how we will reckon with this history during our studies.

To understand how health disparities, race and class will shape our time here at Friedman, we need to be more introspective. It is important that what we study and prioritize at Friedman reflects what we will see and experience upon entering the workforce. Currently, issues of race, class and injustice are at the forefront of our national dialogue. Not only are these topics relevant on a societal level, but these issues can no longer be ignored within higher education institutions. Students are addressing targeted and institutional injustice at countless universities. We can all agree that the Friedman student body and faculty don’t represent the full spectrum of diversity in our society and our future work places. We cannot wait for the demand for diversity and justice to come to us; we must value these ideas from within.

Friedman’s student body and faculty are overwhelmingly white and the school isn’t particularly socioeconomically diverse. Our lack of diversity sheds light on the inequalities in our society at large and makes taking these issues on all the more important. To be prepared for the world that awaits us after graduation, we must make our school more diverse, inclusive and representative of the outside world. To do so, we will need more than symbolic action. We need real change and we can’t wait for years of planning and strategizing. Changes that can be made in the immediate-term include: (1) With the new faculty search, the administration should prioritize hiring professors of color from varied backgrounds. (2) The administration should also establish programs that recruit non-traditional students, like pre-doctoral and bridge programs. (3) Lastly, the mandatory Wednesday seminar can be utilized to bring other voices and outlooks into the conversation. Some of these voices should come from outside Friedman and bring new perspectives to the school.

The Friedman school has a fantastic reputation for being on the cutting edge of research in nutrition and for producing food system practitioners that can shift policy in significant ways. The school has the opportunity to redefine how it engages with issues of race and class and to once again be on the cutting edge of an issue. The health disparities resulting from injustice will not be resolved without resolute commitment and unwavering determination. It is up to us as future practitioners to engage with these issues and to create change from within our own walls. If we take bold steps toward increasing diversity, our community will be rich with difference and unified by hope. We can show other institutions that anti-racism, inclusion and equity are critical to the success of us all.