After a health scare that left her passed out on a Hong Kong hotel room floor, Nivi Jaswal knew she had to make changes.
Not just for herself, but also for women like her: those in minority ethnic groups most at risk for life-limiting diseases like the insulin resistance and hypertension Jaswal was herself now battling.
The health issues were scary, but not a surprise to Jaswal. She’s got a family history of diabetes, as do a growing number of Indians and others in the South Asian community.
South Asians, like Jaswal, are more at risk for type-2 diabetes than caucasians, she discovered.
The progression in South Asian communities is growing at 12–18% per year compared with between 5–11% in caucasians.
And non-obese Indian people can develop diabetes at higher rates than other demographics: about 20-25% of cases affect Indians who aren’t overweight. The risk to the Indian community is as much as four times higher than any other ethnic group.
Since Jaswal’s health scare in 2015, the former Unilever executive launched JIVNITI, a research program through the Boston-based Virsa Foundation that she founded after leaving her high-flying corporate career.
JIVINITI supports women in African American, Latin American, and Native American communities in the US.
It’s aiming to do that through developing fundamentally better understandings of their diets and motivations around food within their limited options.
The program is specifically targeting those impacted by COVID-19 and earning less than $55,000 annually.
“It’s a qualitative research program focused on low-income women and women of color in underserved contexts exploring the relationship between their food choices and resilience, and triggers and barriers against healthy lifestyle change”,” Jaswal says.
Jaswal says more than 110 million Americans — one in three — are now living in at-risk areas without easy access to healthy, fresh foods. These are regions often dubbed “food deserts” for the lack of fresh produce.
“There is a large section of wellness-underserved and nutritionally impoverished families in the US, predominantly where women are single wage earners and a majority of these households belong to BIPOC communities,” Jaswal says.
Women in these communities are “rarely researched,” according to Jaswal, “and definitely not for plant-based innovation.”
“There’s recent discussion on and emergence of shopper research in the plant-based space, mostly around processed vegan products and focusing on flexitarian consumers and others who can afford to pay a premium for these products,” Jaswal says.
“The biggest difference between these research programs and JIVNITI is that we’re focused on women of color, underserved communities, bottom of the pyramid consumers and a whole food plant-based approach versus processed packaged vegan products.”
Food deserts and unhealthy foods
Food deserts affect more than 23 million Americans, according to the most recent USDA data. But those numbers may be even higher, the agency notes, because of the North American Industry Classification System, which also places small corner grocery stores in the same category as supermarkets.
But those corner stores are often hubs for unhealthy, packaged foods, soft drinks, tobacco, and alcohol instead of fresh produce and lean proteins. In low-income urban areas, many supermarkets left because of the risks like theft and robbery.
The lower income households in the community also meant many customers were using the SNAP program (food stamps). For many markets that meant lower per-cart totals and less profitable stores.
As supermarkets started moving out of these regions corner markets and fast-food restaurants took their place, changing the communities’ relationships and taste preferences for food.
Now, as COVID has taken its toll on small businesses, some of those local corner markets may have disappeared, too.
And because of the risk factors that make women in these communities more likely to develop type-2 diabetes, hypertension, and other diet-related illnesses, Jaswal says they need to be researched, especially when it comes with the potential to make healthier food more accessible.
This can help to inform what manufacturers should look at offering in these areas.
Just like the 2020 presidential election showed the power of inner-city Black women to shift the vote in historically Republican states (like Georgia), JIVNITI sees the potential in these groups to change the food system.
And the impact COVID-19 has had on these underserved communities with both job loss, and lack of access to healthy food means the need for support and understanding of their food motivations becomes even higher.
“The systemic inequities laid bare by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic merely scratches the surface of the deep economic, social, psychological, financial and race and identity related issues that run deep in our country,” Jaswal says.
Women supporting women
The all-female team at JIVNITI are working with women entrepreneurs and researchers in the plant-based space.
While processed foods and beverages tend to focus on those who can pay, Jaswal fervently believes that businesses with compassion embedded in their mission cannot afford to ignore those who are often “zip-coded” out of emergent health and wellness options.
“We want to help women of privilege connect with, innovate and formulate solutions for women who are less fortunate than them,” she says.
The program connects with what Jaswal calls “pre-vegan women”.
They’re exposed to a multi-day series of “highly self-reflective awareness-deepening questions and provocations,” that Jaswal claims are designed to “progressively evoke and nudge deliberate thought around identity constructs,” that tap into views and “underlying resilience.
The women are also encouraged to reflect on the relationships between food choices and health, animal rights and environmental issues.
“These demand and supply side shifts need new insights and solutions,” says Jaswal. “Ones that are directly co-created with minorities of color, especially low-income women.”
To learn more about the JIVNITI program, visit the Virsa website.
Jill Ettinger is a writer, editor, and business development consultant focused on vegan and sustainable industries. She lives in Los Angeles with her daughter and their two rescue cats.