U studies shift focus to communities

Two new research projects work to engage the community as well as learn about healthy eating.

When researchers want to conduct a project in a local community, there is often little partnership between them and residents âÄî something University of Minnesota researchers at the Healthy Foods, Healthy Lives Institute hope to change. Laura Richardson , assistant director of the HFHLI , said researchers are taking a different approach by engaging the community in two new research projects taking place this summer. âÄúThis process is trying to heal that a little bit and give shared power back to the community,âÄù Richardson said. The HFHLI-funded projects focus on helping members of specific communities learn about healthy eating. One project, called âÄúDefining the Agricultural Landscape of the Western Lake Superior Region ,âÄù which started at the beginning of June, is working to find out the potential for growing local foods. The goal of the project is to identify why a certain community is not growing as much food as it is capable of producing, Stacey Stark , one of the participating investigators of the project, said. To accomplish this, Stark and her team are including members of the community, like local farmers, to participate in the research. David Syring is a University of Minnesota-Duluth anthropologist who is looking at the cultural aspect of growing local foods. âÄúI really felt like it was important that we get farmersâÄô voices into the story and food producersâÄô voices,âÄù Syring said. The project will work to understand all the factors that go into locally grown sustainable foods: economic, social and environmental. The end result will include an economic analysis of a local foods market, geographical analysis of available cropland, possible areas where new farmland can be developed and what a model diet made up of locally grown foods would look like. The other project funded by HFHLI will start July 1. The project, âÄúLittle Earth Food Justice and Youth Empowerment Project ,âÄù will work to teach the children of a Minneapolis-based Native American community called Little Earth how to eat healthier. Margaret Kaplan , one of the participating investigators, said because of cost and accessibility, the Neighborhood Early Learning Center in Little Earth tends to serve kids unhealthy snacks. Lucy Arias , early childhood coordinator for Little Earth and participating investigator, said starting healthy eating habits at day care can carry those habits to home. âÄúIf little kids are at day care everyday and they get two meals and two snacks a day there, we could really be setting them up to eat healthy for the rest of their lives if theyâÄôre given those healthy choices,âÄù she said. Kaplan said the Little Earth community has other problems besides the need to eat healthier food. âÄúThat area has a high level of arsenic contamination; there is a lot of air pollution from the highways that are nearby,âÄù she said. âÄúThat leads to a pretty unhealthy environment.âÄù Arias also said they are encouraging families to access local foods at nearby farmers markets for healthier eating. Like the Western Lake Superior project, the Little Earth project stresses the importance of community engagement. âÄúThis isnâÄôt a situation where weâÄôre coming in and telling them what to do,âÄù Kaplan said. âÄúIt really is truly community driven.âÄù Richardson said these projects, among others HFHLI funds, are about new partnerships. âÄúThe main focus of the Healthy Foods, Healthy Lives Institute is to be interdisciplinary,âÄù she said. âÄúWe want people to work with groups they may not have worked with before to come up with brand new ideas and new looks at some old problems.âÄù