Limited access to fresh produce is an issue that plagues disadvantaged communities throughout the United States. In some areas, people rely on convenience stores for their groceries, while in others; prices for fresh produce at the grocery store make it difficult for lower income families to afford.
Dr. Marie Allsopp, assistant professor and Didactic Program director in dietetics in the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station's Department of Food Science, Nutrition, and Health Promotion, studied an initiative in New York State. The work there could potentially serve as a model for places like Mississippi, by helping address food access issues by giving food banks money to purchase from local producers.
Allsopp's initial interest in this line of research developed from observing the real obstacles people faced when trying to purchase produce.
"I first became interested in this work when I was working at the Florida Department of Health. I saw a lot of people who were food insecure, and had limited access to fresh produce. You could say they were living in food deserts," Allsopp explained.
When the time came for her to pick a topic for her dissertation at the University at Albany, State University of New York, she was introduced to a program called the Hunger Prevention and Nutrition Assistance Program, which supplies food and financial support for the emergency food network throughout the state of New York.
"The program, which is housed in the New York State Department of Health's Division of Nutrition helps New York State's eight regional food banks, as well as direct outlets like food pantries and soup kitchens. When I heard about their locally-grown produce initiative, I decided to evaluate the program's short-term sustainability one year after implementation," Allsopp said.
She evaluated a stimulus that had been divided up between the food banks to allow them to purchase produce from local producers, which would then be distributed to clients. To determine whether the program had any impact, she compared food bank spending on local produce one year before and one year after the stimulus.
"There was a statistically significant increase in spending one year after implementation of the initiative, which meant that these food banks bought more locally grown produce, giving clients greater access to local fruits and vegetables," Allsopp said. "The Hunger Prevention and Nutrition Assistance Program also reported that clients had greater perceived value of the local produce than they did of non-local produce."
Ninety-seven farmers benefited directly from the funding, and 75 farmers markets benefited-helping to stimulate the local economy. Data and support for this study were provided by staff in the Division of Nutrition in the New York State Department of Health.
This success leads Allsopp to believe that the program could be replicated in other states, particularly in a state like Mississippi, which has a long growing season and plenty of agriculture.
"It could be a win-win situation where farmers have regular support from food banks purchasing their produce, and people have greater access to fresh produce," Allsopp said.
In Mississippi, the need to get people eating healthy is pressing. The state is one of the top five most obese states in the country and has the highest rate of diabetes and hypertension. An unhealthy diet is one factor that can contribute to or exacerbate these issues.
Dr. David Buys, assistant extension and research professor in the food science, nutrition and health promotion department, emphasized that while local produce is great, he is most concerned that low resource populations get the nutrition they need-regardless of whether vegetables are fresh or frozen.
"We don't necessarily want to steer patrons solely to that when they could get similar nutrition and more bang for their buck from frozen produce," Buys explained. "It's important for us to wrestle with questions about whether fresh, local produce is a privilege or a right-we'd like to think that adequate nutrition is a right, but where is that line with regard to where the food comes from?"
In that sense, facilitating consumption of local foods in disadvantaged communities may be an expression of social justice.
"Eating is one of the most basic things about humanity. All creatures have to eat, but one of the things that makes us special as humans is that we have a culture and contextualization for our food-it is a very social thing. So I think that from a social justice perspective there is something exciting about getting local foods to folks at food pantries; we just have to be honest about the fact that the nutritional benefits of ‘local', ‘fresh', etc. are not greater than frozen, or even canned," Buys said.
Buys also pointed out that traditional food preparation methods can often stand in the way of helping people get the nutrition they need.
"Our biggest concern is about food preparation and use. It doesn't make much of a difference whether food pantry patrons have access to fresh produce if they don't know how to cook it healthfully," Buys said. "One of the ways we can address this is by providing recipe cards along with the food, so that people have a guide for how to prepare it in a healthy way."
Buys said this may be more difficult than it sounds and that the way we prepare our food is wrapped up in our wider culture and personal experiences.
"For example, if you take someone whose family has cooked their vegetables with pork fat for the past several generations, they're probably not going to change that habit based on one recipe card. How they cook depends on what they were exposed to growing up, how they were taught to prepare food, and the taste they acquired as they ate food prepared for them. There is comfort in our traditions and convenience in what we already know. Where patrons are in the cycle of poverty also plays a role. It's really complex," Buys said.
However, there are simple habits that Buys recommends to quickly make a meal healthier.
"Sodium intake is a big concern for folks with hypertension; we want people to reduce their consumption of processed foods, which often have high concentrations of sodium in them for preservation purposes. For example, we try to encourage people to rinse canned vegetables to remove the sodium. Other strategies include selecting whole foods like vegetables and fruits-whether they are frozen, canned, fresh or local-and choosing preparation methods like roasting or baking instead of frying or boiling," Buys explained.
Local foods can play a role in this transition by providing healthy options to begin with-and a program like the locally grown produce initiative Dr. Allsop studied in New York could help along the path to a healthier Mississippi.