Working To Make Healthy Food Accessible

For the average middle-class family in the United States, getting access to high-quality food and produce usually means just hopping into the mini-van and driving a mile or less to the grocery store.

But that’s not the case for many others who live in impoverished areas, especially those whose homes are in so-called food deserts, where grocery stores with fresh fruits, vegetables and healthy, whole foods are few and far between.

Worse, the mini-marts that may be nearby often focus on selling cigarettes, beer, “junk food” and snacks that are heavy on processed, sugar and fat — all contributors to the country’s obesity and other medical problems.

According to a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), more than 30 million Americans don’t have access to healthy food. In addition, the USDA reports, one out of every six Americans faces hunger, with 20 percent of households with children reporting higher levels of food insecurity.

But community and government groups are working to close that gap in both rural and urban areas, using programs that encourage store managers to carry more produce and low-fat milk, teaching consumers how to prepare healthy foods and when the weather is warm, promoting the cultivation of gardens to raise vegetables for the kitchen table or preserving. Many of these programs offer financial incentives to promote eating fresh fruits, veggies and other produce.

In Ajo, Ariz., — a poor, former copper mining town only 43 miles north of the Mexican border — the Ajo Regional Food Partnership formed in 2009 with the goal of improving residents’ health and food security, working with partners that include nonprofits, schools, a health center and the county parks and recreation department.

“Our mission is to create and support a local, sustainable and just food system,” said Nina Sajovec, head of the Center for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) in Ajo, a lead partner in the effort. “We believe real, nutritious food should be available to all.

“But people used to drive 2.5 hours to get to a market with fresh fruits and vegetables and other foods that were culturally appropriate for the people who live here, which is around one-third Hispanic and one-third Native American,” she said.

The partnership launched the Authentically Ajo Farmers Market, where low-income residents could use their federal food benefits. In addition, she said the Double Up Bucks program reduces the price barrier so people can get twice the value when they shop for produce.

She said education for young and old is also a big part of the effort, providing workshops, demonstrations and classes. The CSA’s Many Hands Urban Farm and Learning Center — where community members created gardens, orchards and a chicken coop — has demonstration sites and runs a Kids at the Farm program, where children and their families grow their own food and learn about healthy food preparation.

Sajovec said the gardening program has caught on in a big way, using a distributive model. “We didn’t want to create one business that grows all the food,” she said. “We started a network of small to big gardens. We provide support, seed, seedlings, compost and workshops, and then we step out and allow people to help each other. The soil here isn’t good at all, so we had to build it up. But it’s working well and people outside of our network are now growing food in a town that 10 years ago had only two people doing this.”

She said that since 2015, the amount of food under cultivation in local gardens has doubled to 80,000 square feet, with production rising to 16,000 pounds per year and more than a quarter of all Ajo households now growing, selling, buying and processing foods.

Moreover, the farmers market has become a gathering space and business incubator, she said, served by more than 70 local food vendors in a community with high poverty and few job opportunities. More than 400 customers — some from as far away as Tucson and Phoenix on occasion — come to the weekly market, boosting sales for surrounding plaza businesses.

Perhaps best of all, though, she said she believes the gardens have improved residents’ health. Tests show that the BMI (a body mass index used to gauge obesity and fitness) for students in the Ajo Unified School District is falling, she noted.

“That’s incredible,” she said. “We’re seeing a lot more people incorporate fresh fruits and vegetables into their diets. People are also getting to know the foods that are adapted to the desert. We’re doing that through a program called Adopt A Sonoran Desert Crop by growing it or buying it.

“For example, people are raising and eating tepary or ‘Papago’ beans that native Tohono O’odham (desert people) raised for thousands of years here without excessive water or soil usage. It’s high in protein, fiber and other minerals compared to others and can survive the heat of the Sonoran Desert. It’s in the cultural memory of Hispanic and native elders. Now it’s incorporated into a number of gardens. That’s pretty neat.”

In Douglas County, Neb., — which includes Omaha — Nebraska Extension hooked up with the county’s health department to improve access to affordable and nutritious food in grocery stores in some of Omaha’s poorer neighborhoods.

“Some disadvantaged parts of Omaha, sadly, are what we call ‘nutritionally fragile environments,’ where a variety of good food like produce isn’t available,” said Carrie Schneider- Miller. “They’re commonly known as food deserts. And with a lack of transportation, it’s hard for families to eat a wholesome diet.”

She said the Healthy Neighborhood Stores program started nine years ago as part of a community-wide collaboration that was funded through the Centers of Disease Control (CDC) and dubbed “Putting Prevention to Work.”

The initial CDC grant lasted for four years and the program has since been supported by other federal and private funding. Some of the money came from the Chicago- based food giant known as ConAgra, which has Nebraska roots. The program also has received support from the Nebraska Grocers Association and the Empowerment Network, among others.

“The impetus was to reduce health disparities in Douglas County,” she said. “Using a mapping survey, we identified the most nutritionally fragile neighborhoods with the highest obesity rates, all of which were in lower socioeconomic areas of northeast and southeast Omaha.”

Nebraska Extension and the county health department teamed up with grocery and convenience stores to promote and provide guidance on introducing healthy and fresh foods. Stores also received updated and customized exterior signage to attract customers.

“If the stores had coolers, we were interested in working with them,” she said. “We encouraged them, and encouraged is the key word because we needed their cooperation, to offer things like skim and 1 percent milk, produce and lean ground beef.

“We hired educators to do two-hour food-education programs at the stores, teaching consumers easy ways to use and store food, cook with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat protein and dairy foods. We continue to do demonstrations with basic recipes and simple ingredients so people can go home and try things out themselves.

“We also encouraged the stores to do a better job of displaying and promoting healthy food, offer enticements to buy produce and clean up. In most cases, it’s worked.”

She said the Healthy Neighborhood Stores program also stressed showing community members how easy and affordable healthy living can be.

“Extension’s job is to motivate the customer to learn skills and try foods that may not have been in their diets. Anecdotally, we’ve been told this has led to people losing weight and doing a better job of controlling their diabetes and other health problems.”

She said the program also worked with Cooper Farms, a home for troubled teens, to grow produce that is sold at convenience stores and groceries.

Most of the stores allow people to use federal SNAP and WIC benefits. In addition, thanks to the Double Up Food Bucks program, shoppers who spend $5 on food can get another $5 in free produce, for example.

The program has proved a boon for the stores, too. She said one grocery reported a 50-percent jump in sales of fresh produce during the summer thanks to increased promotion efforts.

Food preparation demonstrations and their samples have become popular with families, with fruit smoothies near the top of the list. The demonstrations work well, she said, because customers can sample new foods and dishes without spending money on them. “Shoppers at some of the stores said they’d never tried some foods because they weren’t raised with them. As kids, they never ate green vegetables or ate fruits because their parents didn’t. So a lot of this is new for them and their children.

“Sometimes they’ll say, ‘oh, my kids won’t like that’ about a certain food. So when their children try those foods and like them, they’re surprised. So the demonstrations are a way to influence changing the whole family’s food habits, sometimes through the kids.”

She said the program also promotes canned and frozen fruits and vegetables to get nutritious food year-round. “This is the age of convenience food, and not just for poor people, either. Diets nationally have suffered. But we’re proud of this program because it’s making a nutritional difference for the better in thousands of people’s lives.”

Far from Omaha on the coast of California, the North Coast Opportunities agency runs a Gardens Project that seeks to relieve hunger and inadequate nutrition throughout Mendocino and Lake Counties by creating access to community- based food production and local, nutritious food.

“We work with local government and private landowners to lease underutilized land around low-income neighborhoods for the creation of new community gardens,” said Ava Ryan, the Lake County project coordinator.

In Mendocino County, she noted, one in six residents doesn’t have enough to eat. In Lake County, the situation is more dire with one in five lacking access to food.

“People in Lake and Mendocino Counties experience hunger at higher rates than the national average because rural areas like ours have high unemployment rates, low-wage jobs and a lack of transportation to reliable food sources,” she said.

Since its founding in 2007, The Gardens Project has established around 50 successful community and school gardens. They raise more than 28,470 pounds of produce and provide vegetables to more than 3,000 people every year.

More than 200 people attend free workshops on food production and healthy eating in both Mendocino and Lake Counties each year. And since 2011, the project has trained more than 75 gardeners to become leaders in their communities to ensure effective management and sustainability of community gardens.

“The gardens help a lot of people gain access to the food they’re lacking,” she said. “That was the impetus for Miles

Gordon starting this project 11 years ago. We’ve also found that they help build community, which is something we believe strongly in as well.

“Our gardens have become community centerpieces in most of the neighborhoods where they are located. People spend time there, meet their neighbors and that creates stronger ties. In turn, that helps reduce crime and beautify neighborhoods, improving life for residents of the surrounding area, whether they are part of the garden or not.”

Ryan said the physical health of participants has improved, too. “A number of our gardeners who were previously on medications for high blood pressure or diabetes have told us they’ve been able to get off some of those medications because they are outside exercising and eating healthier.

“Then there is the whole mental health part, too, which is really important for our gardeners. We’ve seen reduced levels of stress and happier people, too. After the big fires we had in Lake and Mendocino counties the past three years — which killed at least eight, destroyed hundreds of homes and scorched thousands of acres — the gardens have taken on a healing-space quality as well, allowing people to take back their communities and grow again right after such devastating disasters.”

The gardening effort has been supported by USDA grants, as well as state funding and private donations. This year, the project will try to raise money via crowd funding on social media.

The gardening effort has been supported by USDA grants, as well as state funding and private donations. This year, the project will try to raise money via crowd funding on social media.

“We’re very proud of what we do and the gardeners are proud of the food they raise. We like to say that we are not only improving people’s health, but empowering communities one garden at a time. It’s a great project to be part of.”

Brian E. Clark is a Wisconsin-based journalist and a former staff writer on the business desk of The San Diego Union-Tribune. He is a contributor to the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Sun-Times, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Dallas Morning News and other publications.

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