Buffalo-based study aims to connect the dots on food access

September 18, 2020

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Researchers know from many previous studies what prevents cash-strapped shoppers in underserved communities from buying more fresh produce. But little is known about which strategies are most likely to reach the people who need them, or have the most success in improving the diets of people in lower income areas.

A new University at Buffalo study based in Western New York is the first that simultaneously examined the preferences of community members and compared those with the community-based programs and resources available to identify the most viable strategies for addressing disparities in healthy food consumption.

Previous research has shown that only 12% and 7% of adults living at or below the poverty line meet fruit and vegetable recommendations, respectively.

"We continue to find that cost, food preferences, availability, access and limited food assistance eligibility and/or benefits are persistent barriers. Residents of underserved communities feel that increasing the affordability of fruits and vegetables through incentives, nutrition education, and increased access to healthy food options will help them to eat more fruits and vegetables," said Christina Kasprzak, lead author on the study published in the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition.

"We also found that healthy food incentives, mobile produce markets, and nutrition education are acceptable and preferred food access strategies," added Kasprzak, a PhD candidate in community health and health behavior in UB's School of Public Health and Health Professions.

Researchers conducted 13 focus groups with 98 lower-income participants in urban areas of Western New York. Eight of the focus groups were conducted at local Women, Infant and Children (WIC) offices, while the remaining five were recruited by community organizations that serve lower-income families. The research team also interviewed 17 grocery store owners or managers, farmers, food distributors, and representatives from community organizations that currently or would be willing to address food access issues.

How to match needs

"Our research evaluated the capacity among local stakeholders to address the needs of lower-income communities, and made recommendations of how we can match this capacity to the preferences voiced in the focus groups with lower-income individuals," Kasprzak said.

"By capitalizing on where there are matches between lower-income communities' preferences and stakeholders we can ensure our efforts to expand healthy food access are viable," Kasprzak said. "We don't necessarily need to completely abandon the mismatches between programs and preferences, but we should heed community members' suggestions for these programs and avoid blindly establishing programs that may not be fruitful."

Cost, limited availability and accessibility, taste preferences and limited federal nutrition eligibility and benefits were the most frequently mentioned barriers to fruit and vegetable consumption. Study participants expressed frustration with having to decide between buying fresh produce and less healthy food options because of cost differences.

Another recurring theme among study participants was that they said they often had to travel outside their neighborhood, which required transportation, to find affordable and high-quality produce.

Researchers also reported that twice as many participants felt they lacked access to healthy food as those who said they had access.

What did participants say would help them buy and eat more fresh foods? Increasing the affordability, as well as nutrition education and recipe ideas. Some participants expressed a desire to learn healthier ways to prepare foods unique to their culture.

Include the working poor

Many participants favored increasing federal nutrition program benefits -- such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) -- or expanding the eligibility requirements for these programs to include the working poor.

On the retail side, store owners and managers interviewed said they'd be willing to expand their fresh produce offerings to meet customers' demands, while supporting efforts to improve the health of the community.

For corner stores -- whose prices generally are known to be higher -- owners wanted guidance on what to stock, how to price and promote those items, and where to source fruits and vegetables.

Farmers expressed a willingness to accept SNAP benefits for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares, and to provide produce to urban corner stores.

Kasprzak was pleasantly surprised to learn that there is ample opportunity for local stakeholders to help lower-income communities access and eat more fruits and vegetables.

"By connecting the dots, we can potentially enhance the reach of existing programs that are preferred by these communities," she said.

Ultimately, though, the barriers of cost of fruits and vegetables and limited eligibility and benefits for nutrition assistance programs are not wholly addressed by the food access programs discussed in the research paper, Kasprzak notes.

"For example, an incentive program makes fruits and vegetables more affordable but does not directly drive down the cost of produce. Therefore, more concerted efforts at the state or national level are needed."

"We know that many of the programs that community members would like to see already exist, but budget and expertise to market these programs are often lacking in small organizations," added Lucia Leone, PhD, the senior author on the paper and an assistant professor of community health and health behavior at UB. "Support from local policy makers is crucial for both getting the word out about these programs and ensuring their sustainability."

University at Buffalo

Related Public Health Articles from Brightsurf:

COVID-19 and the decolonization of Indigenous public health
Indigenous self-determination, leadership and knowledge have helped protect Indigenous communities in Canada during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, and these principles should be incorporated into public health in future, argue the authors of a commentary in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal) http://www.cmaj.ca/lookup/doi/10.1503/cmaj.200852.

Public health consequences of policing homelessness
In a new study examining homelessness, researchers find that policy such a lifestyle has massive public health implications, making sleeping on the street even MORE unhealthy.

Electronic health information exchange improves public health disease reporting
Disease tracking is an important area of focus for health departments in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pandemic likely to cause long-term health problems, Yale School of Public Health finds
The coronavirus pandemic's life-altering effects are likely to result in lasting physical and mental health consequences for many people--particularly those from vulnerable populations--a new study led by the Yale School of Public Health finds.

The Lancet Public Health: US modelling study estimates impact of school closures for COVID-19 on US health-care workforce and associated mortality
US policymakers considering physical distancing measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 face a difficult trade-off between closing schools to reduce transmission and new cases, and potential health-care worker absenteeism due to additional childcare needs that could ultimately increase mortality from COVID-19, according to new modelling research published in The Lancet Public Health journal.

The Lancet Public Health: Access to identification documents reflecting gender identity may improve trans mental health
Results from a survey of over 20,000 American trans adults suggest that having access to identification documents which reflect their identified gender helps to improve their mental health and may reduce suicidal thoughts, according to a study published in The Lancet Public Health journal.

The Lancet Public Health: Study estimates mental health impact of welfare reform, Universal Credit, in Great Britain
The 2013 Universal Credit welfare reform appears to have led to an increase in the prevalence of psychological distress among unemployed recipients, according to a nationally representative study following more than 52,000 working-age individuals from England, Wales, and Scotland over nine years between 2009-2018, published as part of an issue of The Lancet Public Health journal on income and health.

BU researchers: Pornography is not a 'public health crisis'
Researchers from the Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) have written an editorial in the American Journal of Public Health special February issue arguing against the claim that pornography is a public health crisis, and explaining why such a claim actually endangers the health of the public.

The Lancet Public Health: Ageism linked to poorer health in older people in England
Ageism may be linked with poorer health in older people in England, according to an observational study of over 7,500 people aged over 50 published in The Lancet Public Health journal.

Study: Public transportation use linked to better public health
Promoting robust public transportation systems may come with a bonus for public health -- lower obesity rates.

Read More: Public Health News and Public Health Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.