Some things just line up. In 2014, Assistant Professor of Nutrition in the Food Studies program Mim Seidel, MS, RD, LDN, found out that the Aetna Foundation was looking to fund a project that addresses healthy eating in low-income communities—an ideal match for Mim, whose interests (and deep experience) lie in food security, sustainable systems, and health. The Aetna Foundation agreed, and Mim’s project was funded.
What followed was an experiential, project-based class that Mim taught in the spring of 2015—FST613: Community Research: Food and Health.
Residents of low-income communities may qualify for federal aid known as WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children). Having worked for WIC, Mim knew that the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program checks they are given often went unused. Having read widely about the problem, she had some ideas of why that might be. With her Community Research class and other Food Studies students (including Dani Lyons, whose internship centered around the project), she staged an intervention in Wilkinsburg (a low-income community in Pittsburgh) called CRUNCH! Eat Fresh, Eat Healthy, Move More, designed to address some of the barriers.
In Mim’s class, students read about low-income neighborhoods; alternative food systems; and programs like farmers markets and CSA (community supported agriculture). Despite the well-documented benefits of eating local, sustainably grown foods, these programs are often underused by minorities and by people with lower incomes.
“We have some “out of the box” recommendations for changes the USDA might make.” – Mim Seidel
It’s not hard to see why: for one, farmers’ market food can be more expensive. For another, some vendors at farmers’ markets aren’t prepared to accept the large, purple WIC checks. An individual who wants to use a WIC check at farmers’ market won’t get change. But sometimes it’s unfamiliarity that poses the biggest barrier, and that is what CRUNCH! staged a three-prong intervention to address.
Participants were recruited at the WIC clinic in Wilkinsburg. They explained the study (including its incentives, including gifts like vegetable peelers, measuring cups, and supermarket gift cards in small denominations) to WIC recipients and in just over three weeks, reached their target goal of 200 participants (202 were actually enrolled). Throughout the study, students staffed the WIC clinic, recruited participants, conducted surveys, held demos, led tours, and entered data—a full spectrum of community-based research. One student used the study as an internship; another received funding to serve as research coordinator.
The first prong was the tastiest. “The students held cooking demos at the WIC clinic using fresh vegetables that you can get at a farmer’s market,” says Mim, “and let them taste everything. If your income is limited, you’re less likely to buy what you’ve never eaten and don’t know how to prepare.”
“Also, we’re less likely to go to a farmers’ market if we haven’t been to one before,” she adds. “It’s unfamiliar, and it can be hard to tell which vendors accept WIC checks. The little signs are hard to find.” To counter that, she and her staff provided casual farmer’s market tours for CRUNCH! participants.
Thirdly, CRUNCH! staff connected with leaders of community gardens, and tried to encourage CRUNCH! participants to check them out—both to associate healthy eating with community, and to reinforce their familiarity with locally grown produce.
“We sent bus tickets to all CRUNCH! participants after some participants mentioned not being able to afford the extra ticket, and we also knew that transportation issues are documented in the research,” says Mim.
CRUNCH! would be considered a success if participants showed an increased use of WIC checks, and indeed, the increase was statistically significant: a 46.5% redemption rate compared to 39% by non-CRUNCH! participants, at the same WIC clinic.
“We also want to write this up to be published in a professional journal and present it at a meeting in Toronto,” says Mim, who lists Food Studies students Malik Hamilton (research coordinator) and Leslie Gordon and Christen Dinger (graduate student assistants) as her co-authors.“We have some “out of the box” recommendations for changes the USDA might make.”