WVU Public Health partnering with Davis College to identify barriers to food access in the Mountain State

A West Virginia University expert in the social determinants of health is exploring barriers that keep many West Virginians from eating healthy diets that can help protect against chronic disease.

Lauri Andress, a professor in the School of Public Health, has been evaluating food access across the Mountain State since she arrived at WVU in 2013. In her work, “food security” refers to the environmental and socioeconomic conditions that facilitate the ability of all people in a region to secure and maintain access to affordable, safe, culturally appropriate and nutritious foods.

In a new collaborative project with Paul Kinder of the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, and using funding from the U. S. Dept. of Agriculture, Andress is diving deeper to identify the issues creating the “upstream” barriers to food access in the first place.

Last fall, Andress and Kinder convened experts from across the food production system in West Virginia for a food desert strategic planning workshop. Participants were asked to think about the food desert issue in terms of availability, accessibility, affordability, accommodation and acceptability.

“In each community that is suffering from high rates of obesity or diabetes there are behavioral issues at play. But food insecurity calls upon us to examine personal, social and economic factors as well,” Andress said. “Structural factors at the macro level work upstream to determine access and opportunities to attain nutritious, affordable, and acceptable food, as well.”

Their workshop helped to generate a report outlining the factors that create “food deserts” or serve as barriers to food security in West Virginia. The workshop also resulted in a prioritized list of strategies that the state can consider to address its food security problems.

“The strategies developed and prioritized by workshop participants are a good start and aim toward addressing primary dimensions of food security in our state: food availability, access, use, and stability,” said Kinder, director of the Natural Resource Analysis Center and research assistant professor in the Davis College. “These strategies will need to be further fleshed out into robust and ambitious action plans, and rightly so, given the complexity of this truly wicked problem.”

Now, Andress and her team, including two graduate students from Davis College, are embarking on the second phase of the project. Over the next year, they are trying to understand why those barriers exist in the first place.

They will be developing a food desert framework and conducting a gap assessment across the state to determine which of the factors are controlling and resulting in food deserts.

“In a state where structural and personal economic insecurity are the norm,” Andress said, “this approach is the gateway to answering the more fundamental question about how to address food deserts.”

Those interested in learning more can view the workshop videos online (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3).

Faced with a declining rural population and below average income, many West Virginians are left living significant distances from supermarkets and reliable food sources. Identifying this regional challenge and collaborating to determine barriers and opportunities like supply chains that will help address food deserts is an example of the challenges WV Forward is supporting.

West Virginia Forward’s blueprint lays out the need to improve the health, wellness and livability of West Virginians in local communities across the state in order to help boost economic stability and mobility.

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