Researchers examine food systems in Buckeye-Shaker, Buckeye-Woodhill and Central neighborhoods of Cleveland
Although Cleveland is one of the largest cities in the country for urban agriculture and has one of the oldest food policy coalitions, many Cleveland residents struggle to access healthy foods like fresh produce. But a team of researchers from Case Western Reserve University and two dozen community partners are examining the disconnect and how lower-income neighborhoods in Northeast Ohio can have better access to nutritious and affordable food.
The study, carried out by the Swetland Center for Environmental Health at the Case Western Reserve School of Medicine, examines what is known as “food insecurity” or the lack of available food resources. Food insecure residents may not know where their next meal is coming from or may have the financial resources to purchase adequate food.
The research, published this week in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, marks the culmination of a three-year project. The project combined researchers from Case Western Reserve with researchers, leaders and community activists who provide insights that help inform their collaborative research.
The study focused on predominantly black neighborhoods, including the Buckeye-Shaker, Buckeye-Woodhill and Central neighborhoods of Cleveland. These areas have fewer stores selling fresh, healthy food and higher rates of food insecurity.
“These neighborhoods are historically demarcated. We live there. We see it every day, ”said Michelle B. Jackson, community researcher at the Swetland Center.
Researchers held community workshops to collect data from residents, elected officials, food retailers and partner organizations, including the Greater Cleveland Food Bank. One-on-one interviews were also conducted with residents while researchers provided data from their own personal experiences with food systems.
These diverse perspectives have informed the development of systems models illuminating the “feedback mechanisms” that identify the root causes of food insecurity and its effects.
“This work has given us language to talk about the complexity of the food system in a way that helps you see goals to shift the food system towards equity,” said Darcy freedmanSwetland Professor of Environmental Health Sciences in the Faculty of Medicine. “We were able to open the black box of inequalities in the food system by learning together. “
For example, the construction of a new community garden will not only provide another resource for fresh fruits and vegetables, but could also have an unintended ripple effect on property values and housing availability. Other external factors affecting feedback systems include neighborhood crises, such as incarceration, policing, and substance abuse; household expenses such as childcare and housing; funding of government benefits; neighborhood investments; and voter participation.
The team identified nutritional equity as a new goal to guide local food systems in historically separated neighborhoods. Nutritional equity is a state of having the freedom, agency and dignity in food traditions that will support the holistic health of communities. The researchers found that for a community’s food system to be nutritionally equitable, three key factors must be present: economic opportunity, food security, and equitable access to fresh, healthy food.
The food system models developed within the framework of this study provide decision support tools to assess food systems and their impact on emergency food distribution, food retailing, public health outcomes and more.
The study builds on previous research conducted during the university Study on the future of food in your neighborhood (foodNEST) which focused on the health, diet and purchasing habits of residents of Cleveland and Columbus.