Linkage and Leverage grant supports evaluation of produce distribution models in Southeastern Ohio

Assistant Professor of Food and Nutrition Policy Jennifer Garner, a new InFACT hire in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences and the John Glenn College of Public Affairs, was recently awarded an InFACT Linkage and Leverage grant to compare two different local produce distribution programs addressing food insecurity in rural Appalachia.

Over 40 million people in the US are food insecure, defined by the USDA as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. Food insecurity in Ohio is most prevalent in the Southeastern part of the state, where 1 in 5 individuals are food insecure, despite a growing network of small-scale farms in this food-producing region.

Garner's team will look at two programs currently in operation that are using different models to help Southeastern Ohio residents access local produce – Rural Action's Country Fresh Stops and Community Food Initiative's Donation Station. Country Fresh Stops, a market-based model, purchases product from growers and coordinates with various retail outlets, including grocery stores and pop-up markets, to sell that produce. The Donation Station, meanwhile, connects local growers with pantries, by paying growers for their product via monetary donations and gathering excess produce from farms and distributing it to pantries. Pantries partnering with the Donation Station do not collect user income data, so as to not restrict their services to only those qualifying for federal food assistance benefits. Garner notes this is because they recognize food insecurity as an issue affecting households across income categories. In Athens County, Feeding America estimates that nearly a third of food insecure individuals are ineligible for nutrition assistance programs due to income.

The research team will work with program stakeholder to understand and model factors impacting program success and sustainability, including whether they're reaching food insecure households and how use of these programs is affecting participant health, such as chronic disease management.

“We want to help our community partners understand the relative impact of these programs and to have a better idea of how to allocate their resources accordingly,” Garner explains. “Given the differences between these two approaches – market-based versus emergency food assistance – it is essential that we evaluate them using consistent methods.”

Garner expects that the answer will likely be complex.

“This area is a high-need area – 19.9% of the population is food insecure – so a market-based approach could be just as effective at reaching food insecure households. I would hypothesize that these two programs are working synergistically to improve food access,” she notes.

The research team includes OSU faculty across four colleges, including Fisher College of Business Assistant Professor Vince Castillo, an InFACT hire. Future work would include conducting larger trials to determine the impact of various types of healthy food access programs on participant health.

“We have been thinking about these programs as prevention programs, but most people already have at least one chronic disease, so we need to ask how these programs help them manage these diseases,” Garner says. “From here, we are hoping to do larger, multi-site randomized trials of these types of programs to assess their impact on markers of chronic disease.”