In some inner cities, food deserts—areas having limited or no access to nutritious foods—make it difficult to follow a healthy diet. Residents often purchase their meals in small convenience stores or at fast food restaurants, both of which sell many high-calorie items and few fruits or vegetables. The local food environment directly influences residents’ nutrition, and programs are needed to increase healthy options in local stores.
In Cleveland, Ohio, food deserts have been identified in many inner-city areas. Researchers are partnering with underserved neighborhoods in these areas to design and implement an intervention to increase access to healthy foods, to make more of them available, and to raise awareness about them.
In each of the four intervention neighborhoods, a neighborhood working group, comprised of researchers, community partners, and residents, is identifying assets and barriers to healthy food access in the neighborhood. The working group coordinates healthy food programs at four types of neighborhood locations: K-8 schools, food retail establishments, community gardens, and community centers. Each location receives three parts of the intervention: increase in availability of healthy foods, nutrition education, and marketing strategies for promoting healthy foods.
To increase the availability of healthy foods, coordinated program components may include providing healthier options in school lunches and senior food programs, creating space for fruits and vegetables at retail stores, increasing the number of gardens in the community, and changing the food choices in vending machines in schools. Nutrition education includes children receiving lessons on food and culture to make healthy eating fun; food demonstrations in community gardens and retail stores; extension of the food growing season and food preservation programs at community centers. The marketing component, designed with neighborhood residents, provides consistent food messages such as window ads for produce in retail stores, school mailings for parents, and posters and banners at gardens and community centers.
The intervention is being monitored and evaluated to determine the overall success of increasing access to healthy foods in the community. Each location is assessed to determine changes in availability of healthy foods, recognition of healthy food marketing materials, and participation in the program. Changes over time, such as residents’ changes in shopping behaviors, are also being measured.
Through the course of the program, researchers are training residents and giving them the tools to create a sustainable program, driven by the community, to improve neighborhood health. A toolkit of best practices from the intervention is being created and will be disseminated to community members so they may continue to offer and promote healthy foods in their community.