Grassroots groups work to improve access to healthy food

May 24th, 2012 By Jessica Salerno
In a world of fast-food restaurants, microwave dinners and an epidemic of obesity, we all need to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables. But not everyone can buy healthy food—especially in rural Southeast Ohio, one of the poorest regions in the nation. That’s why Lindsey Rose is investigating food insecurity in Appalachia and how grassroots organizations mobilize people and resources to address the problem.

Families with food insecurity lack access to healthy food as well as the means to purchase it, explains Rose, who recently completed her doctoral degree in communication studies at Ohio University. With support from the university’s Kantner Fellowship, she spent the past year following Community Food Initiatives (CFI), a grassroots organization in Athens that emphasizes self-reliance to access nutritious food.

“CFI is doing remarkable things to make up for what food pantries and food stamps aren't getting at,” Rose says. “I was drawn to them because of some of the really positive impacts they've been having in the community.”

CFI sponsors a number of initiatives that promote self-reliance as a means to achieve healthy food security. One program, "Community Gardens and Educational Workshops," provides space and tools for gardens, as well as workshops to learn different skills to promote self-sufficiency, such as organic gardening, canning and drying foods. One project, the Athens Westside Community Garden, became independent in early 2011, making it CFI’s first graduate.

The organization’s Donation Station is a fixture at the Athens Farmers Market, where they accept monetary or produce donations that are used to provide fresh produce to food pantries and local organizations in need. And the “Farm to Cafeteria” program includes projects such as the Edible Schoolyards, in which children can gain hands-on experience in growing their own food, as well as similar programs for hospitals and prisons.

“They're teaching kids who don't know the difference between cauliflower and broccoli —what it is, how to cook it, and making that full-circle connection,” Rose says.

Her background in organizational and health communication allows her to look at CFI from different angles, such as “how people are organizing to inspire social change and health disparities in particular,” Rose says. What we eat is heavily tied to place and tradition, and overcoming “the sensitivity of food and the resistance people have to shifting food habits that have been ingrained in their lives since they’ve been born” can be a real battle, she says.

Austin Babrow, Rose’s advisor of four years, says that her research will benefit CFI as well as other grassroots organizations. “This is a real organization doing real work in a part of the world that has substantial issues,” Babrow says.

Rose, who plans to continue to publish from her dissertation research and teach after leaving Ohio University this year, is excited about the tangible effects CFI is having on food pantries and regional organizations.

“There are people who are out there making decisions about whether they’re going to have dinner that night or pay the electric bill,” she says. “There are major disparities in our community, and part of that has a big effect on health and food access.”

Provided by Ohio University

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