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Kentucky Program Helps Communities Increase Access to Healthy Foods

Dr. Mark Swanson, associate professor of health behavior in the University of Kentucky’s College of Public Health, is leading a project aimed at increasing individual’s access to healthy foods in eastern Kentucky communities.  The Appal-TREE Project (Appalachians Together Restoring the Eating Environment) is a collaborative community research and demonstration project funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Mark Swanson
[Photo: Dr. Mark Swanson]

The program is a partnership between the University of Kentucky and the Community Farm Alliance that addresses the issue of food insecurity in the eastern part of the state.  Swanson’s co-PI on the grant is Dr. Nancy Schoenberg, associate dean for research in the College of Public Health and professor in the behavioral science department in the UK College of Medicine.The research team also includes the College of Public Health’s Dr. Heather Bush, associate professor of Biostatistics, and Dr. Janet Mullins and Dr. Alison Gustafson from UK’s College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment,.

Food insecurity, or the lack of reliable access to a sufficient supply of nutritious and affordable food, effects nearly 50 million Americans.  Geographic access, economic affordability, and lack of knowledge of food preparation techniques are just a few of the causes of this problem.  Food insecurity is a significant issue in eastern Kentucky and the Appal-TREE program, based in Whitesburg, Kentucky, is enlisting input from the community as to how to solve the problem.

Unlike many grant projects, the priorities and scope of the work Appal-TREE is doing were determined in conjunction with the Appal-TREE by a Community Advisory Board after funding was received.  The idea behind this approach is that community members are in the best position to decide what will work for them.

“This is about seeing communities as a resource to solve public health problems,” Dr. Swanson stated.  “The problems related to nutrition are ones that can be solved locally and they’re not insurmountable.  We have solutions in the communities.  It’s neat when UK can help communities solve their own problems.  We don’t know the solution – they do.  It’s the idea of pairing academic knowledge with local expertise.”

The first-year of grant funding was dedicated to collecting input from the community through focus groups with residents and conversations with key stakeholders.  The remaining two years of funding will focus on several key projects, including a “water first” campaign in area middle and high schools to encourage students to choose water over sugary drinks.  Middle and high schools in the community are being outfitted with water bottle filling stations providing filtered water, and students will receive stainless steel water bottles, customized with their school mascot and colors.

Additional projects in the Appal-TREE program involve a focus on increasing healthy food options in school concession stands and organizing free cooking classes throughout the area that emphasize healthy food on a budget and provide participants with basic kitchen supplies.  The program seeks to utilize the rich tradition of cooking in the eastern Kentucky region by teaching community members that the food preparation that is so central to their culture can be done in a different, healthier way.

Read more about the Appal-TREE Project here: http://uknow.uky.edu/content/uk-partners-community-based-programs-working-improve-access-healthy-food.