Friday, March 25, 2011

An Oasis in the Desert

Last time we talked about the importance of enjoying your veggies. We said,

learning to enjoy fruits and vegetables is one part of the equation. You also need to have access to them and you have to be able to afford them. Those are issues for another day.

Well, today is the day!

Have you heard the term “food desert?” You can’t talk about access and affordability of fruits and vegetables without talking about food deserts. Here is a definition I found on the web:

The term ‘food deserts’ describes neighborhoods and communities that have limited access to affordable and nutritious foods. The term was first used in Scotland and characterized neighborhoods that can encompass many thousands of people and/or an extensive land area as defined by city blocks or square miles.

In Michigan, when people talk about food deserts, they often talk about the city of Detroit. One study says over half the population of Detroit “must travel twice as far or further to reach the closest mainstream grocer as they do to reach the closest fringe food location, such as a fast food restaurant or a convenience store.”

Low-income urban areas are one place for food deserts, but you can also find food deserts in the low-income rural areas of Michigan. These are rural, sparsely populated areas where people have to drive a long way to buy groceries at a full service grocery store, because the nearby small town can no longer support a grocery store.

I don’t want to spend a lot of time talking about food deserts. I just want to introduce the term, so you will realize many of our Michigan WISEWOMAN participants live in food deserts, whether they are in rural or urban settings. For the women who find themselves living in a food desert, they face a double issue. Because they live in a food desert, they have trouble finding fruits and vegetables, and because of their financial situation, they have trouble affording the fruits and vegetables they do find.

Which issue do you work on first, access or affordability? WISEWOMAN started working on the affordability issue, but in some areas, our Lifestyle Counselors found themselves working on the access issue as well.

In 2009, WISEWOMAN teamed up with the Michigan Office of Services to the Aging to offer the WISEWOMAN Market Fresh Program. It is based on the USDA Farmer’s Market Nutrition Program. WISEWOMAN purchased books of coupons for our participants that could be redeemed for Michigan-grown produce at local farmer’s markets. Each book contained 10 - $2.00 coupons.

The first year of the Market Fresh Program WISEWOMAN participants redeemed over 13,000 coupons. That means they purchased over $26,000 worth of fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables. When the women received the coupons, they also received nutrition education. In some cases, WISEWOMAN Lifestyle Counselors offered the nutrition education. In other cases, the Lifestyle Counselors partnered with Michigan State University Extension to offer it. The counties with the highest redemption rates were the ones who distributed the coupons at the farmer’s market and provided nutrition education related to what was available at the market that day.

While Market Fresh did not solve the problem of affordability, it at least addressed the problem by helping the participants purchase fresh fruits and vegetables during the growing season. It also introduced many WISEWOMAN participants to farmer’s markets for the first time. I have heard people say farmer’s markets are expensive. There may be a few specialty items that are expensive, but many items cost less than at the grocery store. Plus, you have the added benefit of buying produce that was probably picked that morning!

The Market Fresh coupons helped address the issue of affordability, but we found in some counties, there was still the problem of access. (Remember, these are food deserts.) For example, Lake County did not have a farmer’s market where the women could use their Market Fresh coupons.

The WISEWOMAN Lifestyle Counselor in Lake County, Heather Miller, was able to bring a farmer’s market to the women. She talked to a local couple who owned a farm and convinced them to bring their produce to the Health Department parking lot on clinic days. Heather also worked to get the couple certified to be able to accept the Market Fresh coupons. So, in Lake county, WISEWOMAN addressed access and affordability at the same time.

WISEWOMAN offered Market Fresh coupons again last summer. In 2010, we increased the number of coupons redeemed to almost 20,000! That is almost $40,000 of fresh, locally grown produce in the hands of our WISEWOMAN participants. This was a great boost to the health of the women in our program (not to mention a boost to the Michigan economy).

WISEWOMAN will offer Market Fresh coupons again this summer, and we plan to increase the number of coupons redeemed again. The food desert issue is a large and complex issue that will not be solved just by offering Market Fresh coupons. However, WISEWOMAN is going to continue to do what we can to help our participants find and purchase fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables whenever we can.