Fighting hunger with healthy food
OSU Extension project focused on creating healthy communities
By GARY BROCK
COLUMBUS —Dan Remley wants nutritious, healthy food available to all Ohioans no matter where they live or how far they are from a grocery store.
Remley, field specialist in food, nutrition and wellness at Ohio State University Extension, now has the means to achieve that goal.
Ohio State University Extension is taking part in a five-year, $4 million grant to help isolated communities increase availability of nutritious foods. The announcement of the grant — which involves seven states — was made last month, and Remley is the OSU representative on the team planning the multi-state project.
Late in April the team met via conference call to map out a strategy of how to get isolated communities closer to the food they need.
“We’re focusing on areas defined as ‘rural food deserts’ as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” said Remley. “These are low-income census tracts where a substantial number or share of people are far from supermarkets, generally in the southern and eastern parts of the state.”
The project, called “Voices for Food,” is being led by South Dakota State University and also includes land-grant university researchers in Indiana, Michigan, Missouri and Nebraska.
Remley talked with ACRES of Southwest Ohio just hours after the team held their first meeting by phone.
He said the new program will be looking at specific Ohio counties for the assistance, but would not say yet what counties will be in the program.
“We have not approached any Ohio counties yet.” He said that southern and eastern Ohio rural counties would be the most likely areas. He also said the targeted counties should have a “strong (OSU) Extension presence.” The communities involved in the project will be contacted by the summer of 2014.
“We want to pull together ‘stake holders’ in each of these rural communities that are concerned about the availability of food,” he said. “The idea is to share resources, to work toward the common goal of reducing food insecurity in rural communities.” He said that the stake holders would develop “food policy councils” within the counties to address hunger issues.
The team is testing the theory that communities with local food policy councils will have better food security — or less of a hunger problem — than those that don’t, Remley said. Improving food pantries is one of the project’s main goals.
Extension educators will work with established food policy councils or help communities form them. Ideally, food policy councils have a broad range of stakeholders on board, including people who experience food insecurity and those who can provide food or equipment that pantries need, Remley said.
“Emergency food pantries and kitchens were originally designed for short-term food relief, but we’re seeing a lot of people becoming dependent on pantries for their weekly or monthly food needs,” Remley said. “Unfortunately, a lot of pantries don’t offer the healthiest choices.
“We’re trying to address that through the food policy councils.”
A key component of the project is to encourage food pantries to adopt a “guided client choice” model, in which clients can choose foods from different food groups available at the pantry instead of being offered pre-packaged selections. The project will also develop nutrition education resources to be used in food pantries.
“To develop choice food pantries, you need to involve clients, food pantry directors, and organizations that secure donations such as schools and churches,” Remley said. “They need to procure not just canned goods but focus on healthier choices.”
It’s also important to form linkages between pantries and local farms and gardens to supply fresh foods, he said.
“For example, one of the biggest challenges for pantries is to get a variety of foods in the dairy group,” Remley said. “A lot of times, they just have dry milk. With more partners helping, fresh milk and other dairy options can become available.”
Remley has long experience with the choice food pantry model, helping create such a pantry when he was the family and consumer sciences educator for OSU Extension in Butler County. By working on this project, he said he hopes to find ways to improve the model.
“Grocery stores often put the most profitable or the most expensive items at eye-level as a subtle way to encourage consumers to purchase them. In the food pantry environment, we want to make changes so the easiest choice is the healthiest choice.
“Combine that with nutrition education, and everyone wins.”
(Gary Brock is Editor of ACRES of Southwest Ohio. OSU Extension contributed to this story.)