Building Community and Healthy Food Access

The ease and convenience of shopping, communicating, and traveling have become cornerstones of modern society. Chances are you, or someone you know, recently had a week’s worth of groceries delivered to your front door. Or maybe you requested a ride to your local grocery store to pick up the freshest produce of the season. For those without the means to access those services, including many Cleveland residents, convenience is less of a cornerstone and more of an abstract ideal—especially when it comes to eating healthy foods. Not surprisingly, this lack of access has profound and lasting implications for the health of people and communities that go beyond the convenience of everyday life.

Researchers and elected officials are increasingly concerned about the lack of access to fresh and healthy foods for residents of Ohio—and with good reason. The state had 25% more diabetes-related deaths than the national average in 2015, while Northeast Ohio had the highest number of food-insecure residents within the state in the same year. Informed by data collected by Case Western Reserve University’s Prevention Research Center for Healthy Neighborhoods (PRCHN) and other organizations, Cleveland city officials have already implemented programs to incentivize its residents to buy more healthy foods in an effort to improve the health of its citizens.

One such intervention matches the amount an individual receiving SNAP benefits (food stamps) spends at a farmers market, for example. But poor diet and chronic conditions cannot always be cured by  offering more food options or encouraging people to buy fresh produce. Shopping, cooking, and eating for a healthy lifestyle requires a common social awareness and understanding.

Data from an ongoing Prevention Research Center for Healthy Neighborhoods study show that despite vast outreach and marketing for farmers market incentive programs, SNAP recipients are not cashing in on these incentives. In fact, 60% of SNAP recipients were not aware of a farmers market located near their homes, according to Rachael Sommer, program manager of FreshLink, a five-year study that is the prevention research center’s core project.

The study also finds that even when residents purchase fresh produce, they may not always have the tools or the skills needed to prepare meaningful meals. Even when fresh food is accessible, cultural and social factors create a barrier for individuals to realize healthy lifestyles.

FreshLink has recently moved into its third and final research phase that seeks to employ neighborhood ambassadors—individuals who live among and share connections with Cleveland residents—to spread the word. These neighborhood ambassadors are encouraged to meet residents where they are and within their community institutions, from libraries to food pantries and school meeting discussions about the options available to them for purchasing healthy food. Peers are being recruited through local community gathering spots, social media, and recommendations from market managers.

Once target markets and neighborhoods are identified, researchers will reach out to community partners in those communities, Sommer said. This year, the research group worked in Glenville with Gateway 105, Cudell with Good Earth Farmstand, and University Circle with North Union Farmers Market at University Hospitals.

The purpose of the study—which concludes in 2019—is to help establish a model that utilizes community ambassadors to increase the awareness and social connectedness to farmers’ markets, and therefore increasing fruit and vegetable consumption overall for area residents, Sommer said.

A sociologist by training, these community-oriented interventions make sense to me. In a city and society where some have increasing access to comfort, ease, and convenience, many remain on the outskirts, both geographically and metaphorically. In order to improve the health of our city, region, and state, it’s crucial for those with access to understand the needs of those without.

— Margo Schmiederer

Guest contributor Margo Schmiederer interned at the Prevention Research Center for Healthy Neighborhoods in 2015, collecting data and conducting interviews with grocery store managers and farmers marker administrators for the FreshLink project. To follow the study’s progress, visit Prchn.org.