Improving Access to fresh fruit in Food Deserts-Springfield An interview with Michael Close by Alejandra Cuéllar

Michael Close photograph by Prateek Rajbhandari

Alejandra -Can you describe the project you are involved with in Springfield? What is it about, when did it start?

Michael-The project is focused on fostering access to fresh fruits and vegetables in an urban African American church in Springfield. We’re doing this through partnerships with local farmers and by placing an emphasis on fruits and vegetables that can fight diseases that are prevalent in this population. The project started in the beginning of fall 09′ so it’s fairly recent.

Alejandra Who started it?

Michael– Professor Kalidas Shetti, a professor of food science at the University of Massachusetts started it. He studies Phenolix, which has to do with fruits and vegetables that can be harnessed for their properties that prevent diseases like diabetes. I focus on creating the surveys that go out to the community, I make them and analyze them. Jackie is working on the lab working with traditional African American foods and seeing which ones can be harnessed for their properties in diabetes prevention, and Nelly is working on an anthropological perspective in the community.

Alejandra– Why do you think this project important?

Michael– It’s necessary because communities need access to fruits and vegetables, everyone has a right to healthy food and this community doesn’t have access. There’s also a multiplier effect because if a family can’t eat healthy food it is likely that children’s growth will be stunted and this trend continues through generations. Also, diabetes is an epidemic that particularly affects this community and there are fairly easy ways to prevent it.

Alejandra – What are the reasons for the lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables?

Michael– There’s been studies done on food deserts in urban communities, it’s where access to healthy foods is not available. Corporations don’t see it as profitable to put supermarkets that have fruits and vegetables in urban areas because they are so expensive, and bodegas and mini markets don’t stock fruits and vegetables because they don’t have the right kind of refrigeration and they spoil easily. Springfield has been researched on this issue, there was a food mapping done, which is an analysis of retail food establishments in the community. In order to assess if there are outlets of fresh foods in an area, from a food mapping you can determine if it is or isn’t a food desert. Then you can use your result to demand policy changes or funding for programs that address this deficit.

Alejandra – What are people eating instead?

Michael– What is cheap, quick and easy. Canned food, frozen meals, fast foods are a popular choice, all of which continue to exacerbate diabetes.

Alejandra What kind of measures are you taking to going into a community as outsiders?

Michael– Definitely we have to involve the community in every step of the way. As an academic you are divorced from this community, so you don’t have the knowledge that they do, what works, what is needed and etc. We have been conducting surveys where we ask the members of the community what are some of the reasons why they don’t consume as much fresh food. We learned that accessibility and affordability are the main barriers to fresh fruits and vegetables consumption and it’s pretty alarming and indicative of changes that need to come about.

Alejandra – What do people want? How did you present this project to them?

Michael– In the survey we used, we asked what are fruits that you like and oranges, apples bananas those were the top ones, but we also had a questions about whether or not they feel like there’s a need for this program and the majority said yes, there is a need for this program and a lot of the comments addressed the need for communication awareness of nutrition and healthy eating inside the community.
Have you talked about including nutritional and other kinds of education as a part of your project?

Michael– We would like to tie that in eventually, the thing is that there are a lot of prongs to this project; there needs to be education, there needs to be a mechanism for fresh fruits and vegetables delivery for this community at affordable rates, and we’re trying to address all these but you can only do one at a time.

Alejandra – Have you already started delivering food?

Michael– The one delivery we did, we basically just collected all the food from the farmers. We bought some vegetables for 10 cents a pound because we are striving to get their surplus, so it’s beneficial for the farmers and the community. From there we assembled boxes, each meant for a family of four and then we pilled it into a truck and drove that to the church. Community members distributed the boxes among themselves.
And it was for free?

Michael– Yes, but that’s not a sustainable way of doing it. So, future deliveries should be paid for, and that’s why we want to build a closer relationship between the Pioneer Valley farmers and the community.

Alejandra – If you’re dealing with farmers around this area what will you do about fruits and vegetables that don’t come from this area like bananas and oranges?

Michael– That’s definitely a problem because you’re not going to be able to accommodate everyone’s requests, especially bananas oranges and that’s really hard, but apples was a top one as well, and well this is an apple growing area so that can be addressed.

Michael Close is a senior Social Thought & Political Economy student at UMass. He was born in the U.S.A but was raised everywhere. His interests include fruits, vegetables, and the warmth of sunshine.

If you are interested in this project, e-mail the EAT.THIS.ISSUE@Gmail.com

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This entry was posted in Environmental: Food, Land, Water and Leaves, Issue # 1 February 2010. Bookmark the permalink.

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