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Reducing Food Access Disparities Through Engagement and Collaboration

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Brittany Keegan, John Jones, Sherif Abdelwahed, Sarin Adhikari, Basil Gooden, Nasibeh Zohrabi and Brian C. Verrelli
July 29, 2021

Food Access Disparities: A Common Problem

Communities across the country face challenges in accessing healthy foods. This challenge is not a new one, and has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. Virginia, for example, typically has a food insecurity rate of 10%; in 2020, the pandemic increased this number to as much as 22%. In addition to the pandemic, lack of access to transportation, ongoing impacts of systemic racism and disparities in educational opportunities are all interacting factors contributing to food access disparities. 

In an attempt to address this challenge, public and nonprofit organizations and advocates are working to increase access to healthy food. But is there a “best” way to address this problem? 

Our Team and Methodology

We are an interdisciplinary team of scholars assembled through the Virginia Commonwealth University iCubed program in Sustainable Food Access to identify promising practices in food access promotion. The academic disciplines of our team members include Engineering, Life Sciences, Social Work and Public Administration. Our team is devoted to increasing the sustainability of food access, as well as food systems more generally, through the use of data analytics, smart-technologies and community engagement. The community outreach efforts described in this article were supported by a National Science Foundation (NSF) Smart & Connected Communities planning grant. 

In this article, we share insights from advocates and organizations working to combat food insecurity, with a focus on collaboration and engagement. Qualitative data were gathered prior to, during and after a virtual workshop held in October 2020. Participant responses were collected anonymously and analyzed to identify common themes and promising practices.

A pre-workshop survey gathered demographic information and interests of the workshop’s 35 participants. Participants represented various backgrounds, including community engagement, science/research, health and nutrition, policy and student services. When asked what they hoped to learn from the workshop, equity and access issues were a top interest, as were impacts of the pandemic. Sustainability was of moderate interest, while the food system and food policy were of lesser interest to participants. 

During the workshop, participants identified the following promising practices for those working to reduce food access disparities:

  • Collecting qualitative data in addition to quantitative data.
  • Using informal data collection methods.
  • Being aware of new challenges due to the pandemic.
  • Maintaining a focus on equity.

These are discussed further in the sections below.

Promising Practices in Data Collection

During the workshop, we asked participants for their perspectives on how data related to food access could best be collected. Some discussed the importance of using qualitative methods in addition to quantitative methods, as qualitative data can provide information not shown by statistics alone. Some participants also noted that informal data collection methods provided information not provided by data collection methods dictated by formal policy. As an example, one food provider had historically used data from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in order to predict demand. However, this provider found that not all members of the population they served felt comfortable sharing their information with this federal program (e.g., some immigrant community members did not want to share information due to a fear of deportation). Once the food provider began working to build relationships with community members, and used those relationships to help anticipate demand, it was able to make more accurate predictions.

Promising Practices in the Age of COVID-19

Workshop participants discussed how their work has changed during the coronavirus pandemic and, due to these changes, ways in which they had to adapt their outreach efforts. Some saw their roles change, e.g. a participant who had been working as a volunteer coordinator for a local school system was now tasked with identifying and building relationships with community members who could help provide and distribute food to students. Other participants described last-minute changes to their plans or schedules, which required rapid acclimation. By being aware of new and/or forthcoming challenges, remaining flexible and getting creative in their work, participants were able to adjust and help meet the needs of those experiencing food insecurity due to the pandemic.

Promising Practices in Promoting Equity

Equity is at the forefront of this work, and access to food has always been closely linked to racial, economic and other disparities. These disparities were exacerbated by the pandemic, and in working to provide food to communities, organizations and individuals had to take care to not exacerbate them further. As one participant described, the pandemic led some food providers such as farmers markets to move to an online ordering format. While this worked well for some, others, such as those without reliable internet access, were left out and were thus unable to access food. To ensure equitable distribution, food providers had to be sure to not eliminate some methods of access even if new methods were introduced.

Lessons Learned and Looking Ahead

As this work continues, those working to promote food access will face new and oftentimes unexpected challenges. By following some of the promising practices shared by our workshop participants, and by keeping equity at the forefront of their work, it is likely that they will be successful in reducing food access disparities and in promoting healthy communities for all.

Author: We are a team of scholars from Virginia Commonwealth University’s College of Engineering, College of Humanities and Sciences, Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, and centers in Life Sciences. We were assembled through the VCU iCubed initiative, which aims to foster innovative research and solutions to societal problems across boundaries.Twitter: @BritKeegan

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