In low-income neighborhoods that lack grocery stores, access to fresh food is a serious challenge. Not only do many residents lack reliable transportation, but the cost of quality food can be prohibitive when you’re trying to make ends meet.
The Community Foundation of St. Clair County is breaking down some of these barriers to a healthy lifestyle, and aiming to create a culture of health in their corner of the Thumb. This summer, they used a portion of a Health Fund grant to start a pop-up farmers market. The mobile market travels around Port Huron, bringing fresh food to areas that need it most.
We recently talked with Lindsay Parslow, program officer at the Community Foundation of St. Clair County, about the state of health in the region, how the new market is helping families, and how the Community Foundation is working for a healthier St. Clair County. Here’s our conversation:
St. Clair County is ranked 51st out of Michigan’s 83 counties on the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s county health rankings. What are some of the reasons for that ranking, and how is the Community Foundation approaching this challenge?
The county healthy rankings take into consideration a number of different variables, so it is hard to pinpoint one reason why we are ranked where we are. One of those contributing factors is that our low income neighborhoods do not have grocery stores. Other factors include a shortage of health care providers and the physical environment in which we score poorly on air pollution and commute time, among many other measurements.
The Community Foundation has recently shifted our priorities to include Healthy Lifestyles. We are changing our view in regards to providing “band aid” programs and instead focusing on shifting the culture and making a much larger and long lasting impact on our communities. We understand that without basic necessities, our children will not be successful in school and it becomes a much larger challenge for our families to succeed in life and be able to contribute to the growth and prosperity of our region. In order to move our numbers, we have to start from the bottom and that includes a culture shift that starts through programs like the pop-up markets.
What are some of the barriers to fresh food access in the region?
Access: A few years back we had a grocery store burn down that led to several food desert areas primarily in the low socioeconomic areas of our region. The Vantage Point Farmers Market and now the pop-up markets are helping with this, but we are still looking for a more permanent solution and something to help in the winter months.
Education: Many individuals have never had access to fresh/healthy foods and so they are not sure how to prepare them.
Cost: The cost of healthy food needs to be affordable and comparable to the other unhealthy options present in these communities.
Culture: Availability and knowledge needs to create a culture change that supports an environment where fresh healthier options are the norm.
How did the idea for a traveling farmers market come up? What aspects of the program will make it effective?
The idea came up through multiple community conversations around the barriers to fresh food access. A reoccurring concern in each conversation was transportation. There are many models in existence throughout the state and country so we started exploring from there.
So far it is by the far the convenience. Many customers have commented on how they don’t have the time or the availability of transportation, or just the convenience of not having to load the kids into a vehicle to go shopping.
We are also taking the time to talk to the customers and see what type of foods they want to have available. We want them to take some pride in the market and know that we are really here just to help them be able to live a healthier lifestyle.
There’s going to be a nutrition and cooking component to the farmers market. Can you share a little bit about how that’s being funded and how it will enhance the project?
We are funding that through our Health Fund grant dollars and working with other local organizations that already are experts in the field. They will be coming alongside the market on certain days and providing samples and recipes to customers on how to use items that we have available that day.
What do you see as the next important steps toward healthy food access in St. Clair County?
For the pop-up markets, we want to continue to create awareness about them and incentives for people to try out fresh and healthy foods. We also want to incorporate more nutritional education and cooking instructions to help residents learn how to prepare the food.
Overall, we want to continue to increase access to healthy foods year round and provide more opportunities for residents to learn how to prepare and use fresh foods.
We also need to continue to strive towards making that shift in culture. In order to do this I think we need to continue to talk to our communities to learn what barriers they are facing and to educate them on the healthy outcomes of a healthy lifestyle.
Also, we need to continue to develop partnerships locally and region wide to provide awareness on all aspects of a healthy lifestyle from food to exercise.
As a region, the Health Department is leading an effort to develop and administer a Community Needs Assessment. That assessment will allow us to develop a community wide Health Improvement Plan to help coordinate all of our efforts in improving our county health rankings.
Want more on the market? See why the Port Huron Times Herald called the pop-up market “the sweetest idea since fresh peaches”, and don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and Twitter for regular updates on Health Fund grantees.