Written by Izzy Moody ’19, GW Food Institute Student Fellow
Food Institute Faculty Affiliate Dr. Uriyoán Colón-Ramos is a nutrition expert and Assistant Professor at the Milken Institute School of Public Health. She has worked extensively in Latin America and the Caribbean addressing issues from dietary disparities to a lack of science in nutrition policy. Her most recent project, however, is based just outside D.C. in Langley Park, Maryland.
In 2014, Colón-Ramos began her work in Langley Park with a grant from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to address the issue of food access. She worked with and diversified the community advisory board of the Avance Center for the Advancement of Immigrant and Refugee Health to explore the nutritional risk factors affecting Langley Park and what it would mean to improve access to healthy foods in the community. Conversations with families and several private partner organizations ultimately highlighted concerns regarding the widespread consumption of sugary beverages and increased rates of diabetes and obesity.
The resulting project, called “Water Up!– Agua es Vida!”, aims to promote drinking water to mitigate the health risks sugary beverages pose. However, after interviewing school staff, parents, and youths, Colón-Ramos and her team found that even though people acknowledge and understand the benefits of drinking water for their health, Langley Park has very limited access to drinking water and residents perceive that the drinking water is unsafe.
Colón-Ramos then conducted a survey of local business and found that very few offered water to the Langley Park residents. The area has many restaurants that do not offer water with meals and the local grocery stores carry a wide variety of juices and sodas from US brands and brands from elsewhere in Latin America . Access to drinking water was an issue at the local school, too; high school youth described that bottled water was usually not stocked in the vending machines, and that water fountains were nonfunctional or dirty.
In an intercept survey of a convenience sample, only 9% of residents reported that they drink their home tap water; the majority drank bottled water at home, citing safety and taste as the main two reasons. Even staff at the local school brought water from home to drink. Although the schools in that county do not often test for lead in the water (the last comprehensive test in the county was done in 2004), Dr. Colon Ramos and her team tested the water of more than 9 fountains of schools where they will be working, and found that none were contaminated with lead at the time.
Since these findings, Water Up! and its numerous partner organizations are working together to promote drinking safe and clean water in Langley Park schools. They’ve highlighted the importance of safe water consumption through an educational campaign, which is in both English and Spanish and are exploring most effective ways to promote drinking water in schools and other venues in the area.
What began as a project to promote access to healthful food in Langley Park evolved into a complex process of creating means for residents to access safe drinking water. Colón-Ramos’ Water Up! project combines elements of nutrition, health, policy, and environmental justice; it illustrates the intersectionality of food, and the importance of interdisciplinary partnerships and research. The Food Institute is proud to have Colón-Ramos- food champion- on board.