In your neighborhood

Bringing the market for healthy, affordable foods to the neighborhoods

New Food on the Move program is the first of its kind in the nation, offering to double the value of SNAP purchases spent on fruits and vegetables

Photo by Richard Asinof

Dr. Amy Nunn, executive director of the R.I. Public Health Institute, served as emcee at the launch of the new Food on the Move program at the Kilmartin Plaza in Providence.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 9/14/15
The new Food on the Move program, bringing fresh fruits and vegetables in a market where people live and work, addresses food insecurity, food swamps and food deserts. It also helps to support better health outcomes in low-income urban neighborhoods.
How can the food swamps, food deserts and new food programs such Food on the Move be made more visible in mapping process for Rhode Island that is easily translated into visual images? Are there ways that members of the R.I. General Assembly can shop on a regular basis at the neighborhood markets? Can this work be included as part of the ongoing work to create health equity zones and neighborhood health stations in Rhode Island?
The Healthy Communities Assessment Tool being implemented by the city of Providence is putting together a comprehensive database for all the neighborhoods of Providence, creating a Healthy Communities Index, which defines neighborhood criteria and measurements of community health, supports healthy communities research, and showcases promising best practices for health communities. The effort in Providence is being coordinated by Peter Asen of the Healthy Communities office, focused on some 37 indicators. The data is being developed into a website, making it possible to evaluate community health from an evidence-based perspective. It promises to become a valuable tool in promoting health equity and addressing the social determinants of health in a comprehensive fashion.

PROVIDENCE – When it comes to food, there are many ways to map out Rhode Island: as a culinary valley where there are a cornucopia of farm-to-table restaurants, gourmet food trucks, and chef-owned eateries that compete every year for James Beard awards; as a river of food swamps made up of fast-food chain restaurants that line both sides of commercial strips such as Reservoir Avenue in Cranston; or as an archipelago of food deserts, those islands of low-income urban neighborhoods without ready access to fresh, healthy and affordable food.

An overlay of these different maps of food in Rhode Island would not, in and by itself, produce any surprises, except to identify how difficult it can be for those islands of low-income urban neighborhoods to access fresh, healthy and affordable food while, at the same time, how easy it is for them to partake of retail fast-food in the food swamps.

Such a map could also be expanded to show the connection between food and health outcomes, between low-income neighborhoods and the disparities in health disparities, and how the lack of access to healthy, affordable fruits and vegetables can contribute to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.

That connection has been front-and-center in two new affordable housing developments, one in Pawtucket that will have FarmFreshRI as a first-floor tenant, and another in the West End of Providence, where some 50 new apartments are being built in a $15 million development nearby urban farming spaces. [See link to ConvergenceRI story below.]

In addition, a new program, Food on the Move, which builds on the success of a “Fresh To Market” mobile market program, developed by Gemma Gorham, project director of the Institute of Community Health at Brown University in partnership with researcher Kim Gans, has been launched in Rhode Island.

The program brings fresh fruits and vegetables and creates a market where residents live. And, as part of the program, SNAP recipients get to double their purchasing power at the Food on the Move market: for every $1 dollar they use to buy fresh produce, they get another $1 to spend at the market.

That doubling of SNAP benefits is underwritten by a federal grant of $100,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with the support and advocacy of Sen. Jack Reed.

At Kilmartin Plaza
The Food on the Move van was parked at the entrance of Kilmartin Plaza, the Providence Housing Authority high-rise apartment building at 160 Benedict St., serving low-income and disabled elderly residents, where the new mobile market was officially inaugurated on Sept. 11.

On hand to mark the festivities were Sen. Jack Reed, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, First Gentleman Andy Moffit, and Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the R.I. Department of Health.

Dr. Amy Nunn, the executive director of the R.I. Public Health Institute and an assistant professor in the Alpert Medical School and the School of Public Health at Brown University, served as the emcee; she later joined in with residents to shop at the market.

Nunn’s remarks provided a comprehensive overview of the programs and its goals. She first gave credit to Kim Gans and Gemma Gorham as the originators of the program and the clinical trials that proved the value of a mobile marketplace to provide fresh fruits and vegetables.

The clinical trials, Nunn said, found that bringing local produce to residents proved to be a really effective way to address food insecurity.

“About 15 percent of Rhode Islanders experience food insecurity on any given day,” she said. “We have the highest rates of food insecurity in New England.”

One of the tragic health consequences, Nunn continued, was that a lot of people who experience food insecurity were also obese – what she termed a big health conundrum.

“It’s something that this program has been trying to address and trying to understand scientifically for five years,” Nunn said. “We know that bringing fresh produce to where people live and where they work can really help address a lot of these problems.”

Nunn continued: “What we found was that when you subsidize the price of fruits and vegetables, and you make them easy to buy, that people will in fact eat more product.”

According to Nunn, there were a lot of myths about why people are food insecure, and why they are obese. “One of the big challenges with obesity is that people don’t have access to healthy fruits and vegetables in the neighborhoods where they live.”

There are a lot of food swamps and food deserts in Rhode Island, Nunn continued. “The aim of this project is to bring service to people where they live, something we know that has proven to be very effective, particularly for the elderly.”

One of the things that most exciting about the new Food on the Move program, Nunn stressed, was that it created double the value for SNAP recipients. “If you spend one dollar at our market, it will be worth two dollars,” she said.

Nunn lauded Reed for his advocacy efforts in obtaining the federal grant.

Finally, Nunn said she wanted to remind people that Food on the Move was a market-based solution. Beyond the R.I. Food Bank, Nunn said that it was important to create a market-based solution, where people were able to buy fresh produce in the communities where they live and work.

“This is a model for the rest of the county, the only one of its kind, but one that has the potential to be replicated across the country. The federal government is watching this program with keen interest.”

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