Posted October 23rd 2015 at 10:48 am by
in ABCs + Omega-3: Improving Nutrition in Urban Schools

Can You Collaborate Your Way Out of a Food Desert?

This is the fourth post in a series sharing the story of the process, challenges and lessons learned in a pilot study aimed at applying clinical research in a community setting.

Sorter School Project Lunch Prep

Lunch preparation at The Sorter School. Photo Credit: Sorter School Project.

For the Sorter School Project, urban planner, Lynn Todman, assembled a team of educators, neuroscientists, dietitians, cooks, manufacturers, and supply-chain managers. They assisted her in executing her vision of providing healthy meals to public school students during a community-based intervention investigating the link between nutrition—particularly diets lacking in omega-3— and behavior.

Before any meals could be served to the student participants, the omega-3 fortified foods needed to be procured. For this task, Todman relied on the expertise of Michael Hawes, President of Belovo, Inc., in Pinehurst, North Carolina. Hawes, who has spent the past decade providing procurement services for omega-3 fortified foods to clinical brain researchers, shared knowledge of available products, engaged directly with producers and vendors, and coordinated delivery logistics.

Drawing from his network of suppliers, Hawes was able to secure all of the omega-3 fortified ingredients from four different companies in the United States: Rose Acre Farms (Omega-3 Christopher Eggs), Omega Foods LLC (dressings, mayonnaise, pasta sauce and cooking oil), Barlean’s (Omega swirl), and his own Belovo Inc. (a variety of Natures IQ chicken meats). In a show of support for the project, all four companies, generously donated the bulk of their contributions and remained attuned to the team’s supply needs throughout the duration of the nutrition intervention.

Another key collaborator was the Lakeland Health System. Because the Sorter School kitchen was not available for this project, Dr. Todman engaged Lakeland Health System’s Nutrition Services Department, to prepare all of the needed meals. In an effort to be in compliance with Affordable Care Act requirements, Lakeland Hospital has an interest in exploring various community-based interventions that have the potential to stem poor health outcomes before they arise. One hope was that this pilot intervention might yield useful lessons around how best to do this.

As such, one of Lakeland’s contributions was the support of their Nutrition Services Manager, Jodie Hardesty. Hardesty worked closely with her team to ensure that all of the food and supplies for the project were continually stocked and that each day the required meals were cooked and packaged for delivery to Sorter. Hardesty made sure that “everything was where it needed to be when it was needed,” and on occasion when some part of the process broke down, she stepped in quickly to keep things moving.

Moving Beyond the Research Intervention to Long Lasting Impact

Todman and the team successfully completed the 8-week food intervention pilot in June of this year. In reviewing the many processes and challenges involved in executing this project, one particular issue stands out: the limited post-intervention access that participants have to the omega-3 fortified foods introduced during the 8 weeks.

Early in the program, a student, who had raved to his grandmother about the meals he was eating, asked how his family could access the omega-3 fortified items in Benton Harbor. Unfortunately, even though the Omega-3 eggs are currently sold in Meijer a local Benton Harbor grocery store, the answer to this question is not so straightforward.

Benton Harbor is a food desert. As a result, access to markets with fresh produce, quality meats, and foods with balanced essential fatty acid profiles in the city can be a significant challenge. Furthermore, for some of the students who participated in the Sorter School Project, lack of transportation is a primary barrier that forces them to shop at places within walking distance. These places consist mostly of convenience stores and neighborhood gas stations, which typically stock very small food sections containing heavily processed, shelf-stable, quick-serve items along with carbonated beverages and grab-and-go snacks.

Another challenge faced by those living in urban food deserts is economics. All Sorter students who participated in the intervention came from families living below the poverty line and qualified for free or reduced breakfast and lunch. For many of their families, government assistance dictates how much food they’re able to purchase each month.

The most readily available and affordable options include boxed, canned, and frozen foods, which often contain high quantities of preservatives, excess sodium and sugars, and artificial ingredients. As a result, these foods are also typically high in omega-6s and lacking in omega-3s. So, while economically affordable, these options can be costly to consumers’ physical and behavioral health.

Hawes has been instrumental in positioning omega-3 products in several popular grocery chains across the country. He currently works with buyers to educate them about the benefits of high-quality omega-3 products so that as demand increases, it is met with availability.

But, while his efforts to bring omega-3 fortified products to the marketplace will undoubtedly benefit many consumers, the challenges of access and affordability for communities like Benton Harbor remain. The food industry and critical community institutions like hospitals will have to work together to develop solutions, as they both have key roles to play in this public health issue.

Post by The Sorter Project Team.

Comments are closed.