Monday, August 8, 2011

Engaging Residents to Increase Healthy Food Access in Low-Income Communities

Obesity is a national problem that has become increasingly acute in low-income communities of color. Data has shown that many low-income communities have limited access to affordable, quality, healthy foods resulting in high rates of obesity and correlated health problems such as diabetes. Not having access to healthy food options not only has significant impacts on the health of individuals and families but also cuts community members off from important economic benefits that local grocery stores and markets could bring such as employment.

However, many communities are also successfully working towards addressing this need while pushing policymakers to support their efforts.  For example,  the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently announced the availability of up to $10 million in funding support for the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI).  The funding is designed to eliminate these “food deserts” and improve access to healthy affordable foods by developing grocery stores, small retailers, corner stores, and farmers markets in these areas.  The HFFI represents the first time the Federal government has coordinated its efforts to improve access to healthy and nutritious foods in low-income neighborhoods. Through coordination across agencies, the HFFI is intended to more effectively support comprehensive community development strategies that promote both the health and economic vitality of neighborhoods.

PolicyLink's new report, Healthy Food, Healthy Communities: Promising Strategieis to Improve Access to Fresh, Healthy Food and Transform Communities highlights four strategies for improving access to healthy foods in low-income communtiies. These strategies - develop new grocery stores, improve small stores, start and sustain farmers markets, and connect local farmers to consumers -- use a combination of praactices that include creating dedicated financing; collecting data about quality and satisfaction; and engaging residents.

In Atlanta, Georgia, a group of residents in three low-income Atlanta neighborhoods are already leading the way in using data and authentic resident voice to bring better quality foods into their communtiies. Using CSSP's Customer Satisfaction framework to drive their work, these residnets are conducting research, collecting data and analyzinzing their experiences in being able to access quality, affordable foods. CSSP’s Customer Satisfaction work is aimed at transforming residents in vulnerable communities into empowered consumers who demand quality services. It borrows from the private sector, where customers decide which companies thrive, which goods and services are available and even how they are provided. This work has three main components:

 Engaging and educating residents as consumers

 Developing a neighborhood consumer advocacy group to capture consumer feedback

 Creating partnerships between public and private agencies to use this feedback to improve services

Through this work, a new accountability system is created. Residents are asked if they got what they needed and if the services were effective and delivered with respect. As residents collect and report this data about their experiences publically, service providers become more responsible and accountable to effectively serving their needs. Residents are trained to become empowered consumers who take action to demand quality services.

For more information on efforts in Atlanta, click here.
Also see recommendations to state policy makers for improving access to healthy food here.

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