What we know: Higher consumption of fruits and vegetables is associated with better health outcomes, including decreased rates of heart disease and cancer.
Also true: Despite advances in understanding the systemic barriers to healthy food access, diet-related health problems continue to disproportionately affect low-income communities of color.
The question: Why, particularly in a community like ours that places strong emphasis on the basic needs like poverty, food and education, are we not seeing more significant improvements in overall health and well-being in our communities of color? What are we missing?
That’s the question at the heart of a new Advancing a Healthier Wisconsin project that kicked off July 1. The project is a partnership between Wello, Brown County resource centers Casa ALBA Melanie, Crusaders de Justicia and We All Rise: African American Resource Center, and the Medical College of Wisconsin.
Through the 18-month grant period, we’ll be evaluating Wello’s signature produce box program with the goal of understanding why this approach has been so successful not only at increasing healthy food access but also developing trust and connection between and across resource centers in the region, engaging local farmers to participate in the food needs of the community, and working to create a community-led, proactive vision of health.
As a result of this grant, over $162,000 in funds will flow directly into our local economy with nearly $48,000 earmarked for produce purchases from local farms. An additional $20,200 will be distributed in the form of Pandemic Double Your Bucks, empowering community members to shop for produce at local Green Bay and Manitowoc farmers markets.
This project also supports a continuation of Wello’s goal to gather the data that can empower grassroots change. As part of the project, our team will be using emerging geospatial technology tools to map food needs and use patterns, as well as explore how providing people access to fresh, high-quality produce through trusted community channels might shift health behaviors. UW Extension teams in Brown and Manitowoc counties also will be supporting the project, working with the collaborative team to empower grant participants to prepare, eat and celebrate healthy summer foods.
Food systems work is a wonky term that we tend to use a lot at Wello to categorize specific projects like Farm to School, Farmers Market Incentives and produce box distribution that focus on the power of food to enhance community well-being. The word “systems” is important because it’s not simply a lack of nutritious food that’s keeping people from achieving optimal levels of well-being. There are policies, practices, power dynamics, and mindsets at play as well.
To take it a step further, in a recent issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Katherine Milligan, director of the Collective Change Lab, wrote that we must not lose sight of the fact that systems are made up of people and that “purely technical, rational approaches to systems change will not make much of a dent in shifting power or altering our most deeply held beliefs. ”
That’s why we’re calling this grant project Cultivating Community — because it is focused on co-creating a proactive vision of health for our neighbors. By trusting our local resource centers to identify the clients they believe are most likely to benefit from the program, we’re effectively targeting our efforts for maximum impact. Resource center partners are also taking the lead in developing the strategies they feel will be most impactful for their clients.
At We All Rise, for instance, a cohort approach will help to build camaraderie among grant participants and offer the chance to opt-in to health-promoting goals and the power of food as medicine. At Casa ALBA Melanie, the produce is another healthy resource offered to families who are also accessing housing, immigration and other essential support. Crusaders has an established home-delivery network that will be activated as the season unfolds.
This story also ran as our July Green Bay Press-Gazette column and can be read here.