Falk professor Jennifer Wilkins updates first U.S. regional food guide to help consumers understand benefits, how-to’s of eating locally

Thanks to farmers’ markets, farm-to-school programs, and community-supported agriculture, locally grown foods are more readily available—and more in demand. People want to know where their food comes from. How is it grown? What steps are involved in its processing? Evidence suggests that plant-based, regionally sourced diets, largely composed of minimally processed foods, can significantly reduce some of the negative environmental impacts of our food choices. Eating locally produced foods also strengthens the market for local farmers.

In 1993 when Jennifer Wilkins, Ph.D., R.D., the Daina E. Falk Endowed Professor of Practice in Nutrition, joined the faculty of the Division of Nutritional Sciences (DNS) at Cornell University, she was interested in local, community-based food systems and the implication of these systems for food choice and diet quality. Noticing the federal dietary guidance system – food guides and dietary guidelines – lacked information on seasonality and local food availability, she came up with the idea of regional dietary guidance. To help consumers select and enjoy diets that were seasonally varied and locally produced, she developed a regional food guide based on the USDA Food Guide Pyramid, the official federal food guide at that time. Working with then-Cornell graduate student, Jennifer Bokaer-Smith, Wilkins was responsible for introducing the first regional food guide in the United States.

The original Northeast Regional Food Guide debuted in 1996 and connected regional food systems with nutrition and dietary guidance. The Northeast Regional Food Guide was accompanied by a set of fact sheets, which provided more information on issues related to local food, food systems and seasonality. In 2011, First Lady Michelle Obama and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack released the federal government’s MyPlate food icon to help consumers build a healthy plate at meal times, with an emphasis on the fruit, vegetable, grains, protein foods, and dairy groups.

To reflect the new federal MyPlate food guide and with support from the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, Wilkins recently updated the Northeast Regional Food Guide, working with then-DNS undergraduate project assistant, student Courtney Mayszak, currently a dietetic intern with Wegmans in Rochester, NY. Known today as MyPlate Northeast, the guide promotes healthy eating, sustainability and local food systems, reflecting the latest diet recommendations associated with nutritional well-being. It also proposes that seasonally varied, locally-based diets can foster food systems that are diverse, protective of natural resources, and better able to adapt and mitigate climate change.

Many foods pictured on MyPlate Northeast are available regionally year round, such as milk, yogurt, cheeses, dry beans, nuts, eggs, poultry, fish, meats, breads, cereals, pasta, tortillas, and whole grains. Most fresh fruits and vegetables are available on a seasonal basis, but several, such as hearty root vegetables and apples, store well and maintain their quality for months. Being a local food consumer in the Northeast means choosing more stored, dried, frozen and canned produce in the winter and enjoying our region’s abundant fruits and vegetables fresh during the spring, summer, and fall.

“In the future, fact sheets and other resource materials will be developed to accompany MyPlate Northeast. These may include a quiz or game to help consumers assess how seasonal and local their current diets are. As the USDA updates its Dietary Guidelines for Americans every five years, it may also eventually revise MyPlate. This will be an opportunity to once again update MyPlate Northeast. As we learn more about the energy and other resource costs of individual food choices, this will help inform the development of regional dietary guidance,” notes Wilkins.

Dr. Wilkins joined Falk College in August 2014 from the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University where she had been an Extension faculty member for 21 years and where she retains a visiting scholar appointment. Her professional portfolio includes directing statewide outreach for the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program, developing the New York State Farm to School Outreach Program, and serving as community coordinator for the Cornell Dietetic Internship. She was one of eight individuals selected nationally for the Kellogg Foundation Food and Society Policy Fellowship from 2004-2006. Her monthly nutrition, food policy and food system column, The Food Citizen, appeared for six years in the Albany Times Union. For several years she taught short courses in food systems, policy, diet and nutrition and Mediterranean diets as a visiting professor at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo and Parma, Italy. In 2009 she coined the term ‘civic dietetics’ to describe the emergence of integration of food system awareness into professional dietetics practice.

Her applied research includes exploration of interests and practices related to local food procurement among school food service professionals and the implications of farm-to-cafeteria programs on transaction costs and institutional procurement strategies, children’s diets, and small and mid-size farms; economic impact of institutional procurement on local agricultural; influences of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) participation on food preferences, diet composition and food skill development particularly among low income families; conceptualization and interest in of local and seasonal foods; influence of food consumption patterns on per capita land, water, and energy requirements, and; roles of dietary guidance and consumer food choice in addressing sustainability issues, including climate change.