As a communication expert, UNC Greensboro’s Dr. Marianne LeGreco understands that the way we talk about food impacts the solutions we put in place.
For example, “there’s a difference between ‘availability of’ and ‘access to’ food,” explains the associate professor of communication studies.
In North Carolina, fresh vegetables and many fruits are available year-round. But while food may be available, it’s not always accessible. In Guilford County, many residents live in “food deserts,” or areas in which most residents live more than a mile from a grocery store, and below the poverty line.
People living in food deserts can feel stuck there. Residents are not in walking distance to a grocery store, and some cannot afford transportation.
“The idea of ‘access’ seems easy to wrap our minds around,” LeGreco says. “And we think we can fix that easily by starting a food pantry, a community garden or a mobile market. But really, there’s more to it than that.”
This is where the rhetoric we use when trying to solve problems around food becomes especially important, she adds. Increasing physical access to nourishing foods doesn’t always get at the root of accessibility.
“When you’ve grown up in an area where you have access to only convenience foods, you might have never learned to cook,” LeGreco says.
In 2014, LeGreco partnered with the Guilford County Department of Public Health and numerous community partners to launch the Mobile Oasis Farmers Market. This farmers market on wheels provides fresh, local food to people living in food deserts.
Even though the market has been a huge success, LeGreco points to a key lesson she and her partners learned from data they collected over two years.
“Increasing access to healthier food options alone doesn’t guarantee that people are actually going to use them,” she says.
However, they found that increasing access alongside other health resources does encourage participation.
“We had much more return business when one of our community members offered recipes and taste tests so that people could know what to do with a butternut squash, or different ways to incorporate ingredients,” LeGreco says.
The takeaway for policymakers?
“When we incentivize grocery stores to come into particular neighborhoods, we’re not always capturing the entire problem,” she says. “It can be far easier to build a store than to fix other problems like a lack of social support or a lack of knowledge or time to cook.”
Want to learn more? Click here to read more about LeGreco and other UNCG researchers working on food issues, including Dr. Jigna Dharod, who looks at food insecurity among low-income women with children and among immigrants and refugees.
This post was adapted from a UNCG Research Magazine story written by Robin Sutton Anders. Photography by Mike Dickens.