Educator tackles food insecurity in county
CANFIELD — Robin Adams visits hungry people, and teaches them about getting the healthy foods and exercise they need.
One facet of the Ohio State University Extension Office in Canfield is its Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program, and Adams — the program assistant — recently completed a study on food and nutrition in Mahoning County.
“This is a subject that is very near and dear to me,” Adams said. “It is my hope that we can draw awareness to those in the community that there are families struggling in our back yards.”
The Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program is a federal and community outreach program offered in all 50 states, funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Its education efforts aim to reduce the nutrition insecurity of limited resource families and youth.
It’s free, and serves families with children, pregnant women, and caregivers who care for children in their home, as well as youth. It helps them make healthier food choices, learn new food preparation skills, increase their physical activity, and stretch their food dollars, Adams said.
A national report from the Food Research and Action Center in 2018 listed the Top 20 urban centers and surrounding areas for severe food hardships, including struggling to find money to buy food. States were rated with the low of 8 percent found in North Dakota and a high of 22 percent in Mississippi.
For individual communities the Top 20, the No. 1 spot in the nation for food insecurity was Bakersfield, Calif., with a 23.2 percent hardship rate. Second on the national list was the Youngstown-Warren-Boardman area at 22 percent.
The numbers on paper say a lot about the hunger that exists in the Mahoning Valley. The reality is when a person actually goes out and sees what is happening first-hand, as Adams did.
In January 2019 she was scheduled to teach a nutrition series at Kirwan Homes on Jackson Street in Youngstown in partnership with Heart Reach Neighborhood Ministries. “As I drove along Wilson Avenue, seeing the overgrowth surrounding the industry of that area and lack thereof, houses boarded up, cars left sitting, I remember thinking that this was an area that time seems to have forgotten,” she said.
She sat down with the women there and asked about how they access food for their families.
“We discussed openly where they shopped, what transportation they used, what barriers were faced and what foods were available at the stores they frequented. I remember one mother that day very firmly stating, ‘Why do you even care? No one cares about us here; we can’t get anyone to even come and help us.’ My response was simple: ‘As your friend who cares, I vow that we will work together to make this better.'”
As promised, Adams showed up the following week. She said the lady who didn’t think anyone cared looked at her and said, “You came back? No one ever comes back.”
Adams realized then she needed to work toward bringing attention to the lack of resources that these families face daily.
“I told these women that if no one is listening, ‘I will be your voice’,” Adams said.
About a month later, February 2019, she received training for a program called Healthy Eating Active Living: Mapping Attributes using Participatory Photographic Surveys. The program engages residents, community partners, local extension offices, and campus faculty.
“We reached out to Sarah Lowry, director for the Healthy Community Partnership (Community Foundation of the Mahoning Valley) to discuss the possibility of a grant being used from the Partnership to get the project moving forward. The project was designed to document people’s experience of place with respect to supports and barriers for habitual healthy eating and physical activity.”
The grant came in, cameras with GPS were issued and residents began photographing the barriers they faced such as unclean and non-operating cooler systems in the nearby store, unsafe or no bus stops, playgrounds that were burned by arsonists, and abandoned, deteriorating structures in neighborhoods.
“What we found as part of the project was that these families face significant barriers to accessing food, as well as limited opportunities for safe physical activity,” Adams said. “The barriers faced each day by the families is alarming, at best.”
Thanks to efforts of April Alexander and her team at Heart Reach Neighborhood Ministries, as well as community partners around Mahoning County, these families “are able to receive short term fixes to a long-term crisis,” Adams said.
While the receipt of additional state and local food benefits has helped Kirwan Homes residents, and especially those with children during the pandemic, the food insecurity largely remains an issue, according to Alexander.
“The closest stores in that community do not often offer the healthiest option,” Alexander said. “Yes, public transportation is available to larger grocery stores in Boardman, or even a couple of miles away, where access to healthy nutritious foods are available, yet navigating several bags of groceries from the bus to home with young children, or as a senior adult remains challenging. At our Heart Reach Neighborhood Ministries Kirwan Homes center, we continue to largely serve senior residents coming for food boxes or food box delivery.”
Adams is currently offering the nutrition programming each week via Zoom. Each lesson is about 60 minutes, and upon completion of the series participants will be mailed a grocery pad, a color-photo cookbook and receive a certificate of completion. Unfortunately, many of those suffering food insecurities don’t have computer access.
Adams has been with The OSU Extension (Mahoning County) since 2013. In 2019 she was awarded the USDA National Peer Educator Award, only one of four awards given in the nation.