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What's in the foodNEST?
What is the foodNEST?
How do changes to the food retail environment affect the health of the surrounding community? This is precisely the question being explored in the Future of Food in Your Neighborhood Study (dubbed foodNEST), a three-year study that commenced in July 2015. Led by PRCHN Associate Director Darcy Freedman, PhD, the foodNEST will examine changes in diet among people living in two targeted neighborhoods: St. Clair Superior in Cleveland and Southside in Columbus, Ohio. These neighborhoods were identified as two areas in Ohio with the greatest need for more supermarkets and other fresh food retail venues according to the Food for Every Child Report, published in 2014 by the Food Trust. These neighborhoods are also comparable in terms of demographics and in higher-than-average rates of obesity, hypertension, and diabetes.

For the purposes of the study, the biggest difference in these communities is that the St. Clair Superior neighborhood will soon be home to Hub 55, a 42,000-square-foot food hub that will greatly expand the range and accessibility of fresh and nutritious food in the area. The study will examine how this major change in food options affects residents’ nutritional choices and health over time. Food hubs provide the multi-vendor variety of a farmers’ market with the hours and convenience of a grocery store. Supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and a range of nonprofit organizations, there are now about 300 hubs across the country. The foodNEST project aims to provide information and insight regarding how food hubs affect diet and health in urban areas defined as food deserts.

Freedman notes that the term “food desert” is often misunderstood. For instance, there are two supermarkets at the southern periphery of the St. Clair Superior neighborhood. However, the majority of the people in the neighborhood live more than one-half mile from a supermarket, which fits the USDA’s access definition of a food desert. Freedman adds that food deserts are often contexts of imbalanced access rather than no access to healthy foods. In other words, they are “swampy” in less healthy foods like pop, chips, and candy with limited availability of fresh and healthy items.

Hub 55 is scheduled to open in spring 2016. The foodNEST provides a rare opportunity to collect baseline data from the St. Clair Superior neighborhood before and after Hub55 opens, with a comparable neighborhood in Columbus to compare results. Funding for the foodNEST came from a $2.3 million grant from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases through a rapid-response funding mechanism. The National Institutes of Health has only funded five other studies in the country using this time-sensitive mechanism.

Study structure and data collection
The foodNEST study will enroll a total of 520 primary food shoppers in both communities who will complete comprehensive “24-hour dietary recall” interviews where they will detail the foods and beverages they consumed during the past 24 hours. Study participants will also complete a short survey to assess psychosocial and behavioral factors that influence food shopping and diet. Trained research staff members affiliated with the BioNutrition Core of CWRU’s Clinical and Translation Science Collaborative will conduct the interviews by phone at baseline (the study’s beginning), 12 months, and 24 months. In total, each survey participant will be surveyed nine times. Additionally, the study team will examine changes in the broader food retail ecosystem as both a direct and indirect effect of the introduction of the food hub. This will be accomplished through comprehensive food retail audits in both communities at three points during the study timeframe.

One of the key aspects of the foodNEST is the multi-layered collaboration between university and community organizations. Along with the PRCHN, partners include the CWRU Center for Reducing Health Disparities, the John Glenn School of Public Affairs at The Ohio State University, the College of Social Work at University of South Carolina, the Parsons Avenue Merchants Association in Columbus, and the St. Clair Superior Development Corporation in Cleveland. Freedman is enthusiastic about this collaborative model to guide chronic disease prevention research stating, “Engagement of partners from across Ohio will foster rapid and relevant translation of findings to inform efforts focused on food environment interventions and related policies both locally and nationally.”
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