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Removing Barriers to Healthy Living

Summer 2011 | By Amy Patterson Neubert. Photo by John Terhune.

Above Photo: Katy Bunder, executive director of Food Finders Food Bank, right, speaks with Monyette Bryant, left, about the Voice of Hunger Project.  Others looking on are, clockwise, Kim and Jeff Canen, and Danielle Goldberg.  Photo by John Terhune, courtesy of the Journal and Courier.

Have you ever wondered what happens to that tin of anchovies or can of pasta sauce that you plucked from your pantry to donate to a food drive?

Some Purdue graduate students in the Brian Lamb School of Communication decided to find out through a community-based class project. They interviewed and volunteered with 15 food bank clients for the Voices of Hunger in Tippecanoe County project, an ongoing collaboration between communication professor Mohan Dutta and Food Finders Food Bank, a local program that provides emergency food aid.

Based on the interviews and through collaborative research partnerships with individuals who experience hunger, the students found that food bank clients live on a lack of protein, survive on meager portions, and eat too many products that are high in salt. People were sent home with too much canned corn and too many bags of potato chips, and one needy family was left wondering what to make of a jar of olives stuffed with bleu cheese. Because the food resources are primarily from donations, they often consist of whatever people happen to select from their pantry.

But why should researchers take the time to converse with people and create opportunities for them to photograph their experiences with food in their homes as they unpack their products from the food bank? The research is providing accurate information about the unique challenges people face narrated through their own understanding of the problems they face. The research has also helped Food Finders analyze some of the problems recipients had experienced at individual food pantries.

"We had heard rumors before that some food pantries were imposing rules that didn't come from Food Finders," explains Katy Bunder, executive director of Food Finders. "For example, families of two or fewer people had been told they had to choose between hot dogs or tuna, and that they couldn't choose larger packs of chicken because their family was small. Once this rumor was substantiated with the help of Purdue students, we were able to work with the local food pantries to bring their policies in line with Food Finders. This project is an interesting concept and we received some good information from the experience."

Food Finders Food finders volunteers distribute food at a mobile food pantry. Photo by of Michael Heinz, courtesy of the Journal and Courier.

The research team will next interview community members, political leaders, and staff and volunteers at Food Finders and local food pantries, and will continue to share their findings. The project's goal is to build partnerships among the University, social service providers, policymakers, and clients to address the obstacles to eliminating food insecurity.

"I think people would be surprised to learn that a large number of people around the Purdue area struggle with hunger and rely on a food bank for resources," Dutta says. "The gap is often between what we know about healthy food and the economic constraints that community members experience, particularly in the backdrop of the increasing economic difficulties for families around the country. For instance, people know that it is important to eat fruits and vegetables for good health, but unless we have a way for them to buy or receive this food, it is not possible. Communities may also have physical barriers to good health. People may know that they should exercise, but there may not be walkways or safe outdoor areas."

Analyzing and then reducing these health disparities is the goal of a new liberal arts initiative, the Center on Poverty and Health Inequities, known as COPHI, based at Purdue's Discovery Park and housed within the Regenstrief Center for Healthcare Engineering. The center, led by Dutta, will use research and outreach projects to reduce health disparities in Indiana, the United States, and around the world, just as they are doing with the Voices of Hunger project.

In the late 1990s, Dutta, also associate dean for research and graduate education in the College of Liberal Arts, worked on campaigns to improve people's health, but as he listened to the voices of people in the target population, themes regarding food and hunger kept emerging. He realized that many people, including Americans who are saturated with messages about eating right, could not achieve good health because they struggle with hunger.

"Food is central to good health, and food security is often the greatest challenge for a person's health," Dutta comments.

Today, he is looking at hunger and food resource issues in India, Singapore, Bangladesh and the United States.

Historically, medical experts or educators have created health campaigns for a local group, but Dutta argues that a community-driven and culture-centered approach is necessary. The goal of this approach is for solutions to originate from within the community, because they are more likely to resonate with the needs of the community. If community members participate in the decision making, a long-term solution is more likely to be obtained. This is especially true as health educators reach out to countries around the world.

Dutta has been conducting fieldwork since the 1990s in highly impoverished areas of West Bengal, India. His goal is for nongovernmental organizations in this rural area to engage the cultural-centered approach so they can engage local institutional structures to develop effective solutions. Local community participation is key, Dutta reiterates.

"This approach is meant to create sustainability -- where a grant may run out of funding or academics come and go -- the interest of the local community can make a difference in addressing those fundamental problems that adversely impact the community," he says.

Food Pantry
Shelves at the Food Finders Food Bank

The center and its related research projects are still in their early phases, but the vision for the center is to evolve into a research and advocacy clearinghouse on poverty and health care that engages with policymakers, community advocates, and community activists.

"This new center at Purdue," Dutta reaffirms, "provides an incredible cultural and global expertise base of Purdue researchers working on issues of health care disparities. If we invest in this area, then the choices of the topics that we can address, from universal health care, to health care reform, and to health as a human right, are endless."

The center is supported by projects funded by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, National Institutes of Health, the Regenstrief Center for Healthcare Engineering at Discovery Park and the Brian Lamb School of Communication. The new center will collaborate with the Indiana State Department of Health, Indiana Minority Health Coalition, Northwest Indiana Health Disparities Initiative and other community groups.

Other areas of study:

* A study of patient and provider communication, and how those interactions can affect clinical decisions, testing, prescribing, and patient outcomes. The study is led by Cleveland Shields, associate professor in human development and family studies in the College of Health and Human Sciences.

* Dutta also is working with a team of scholars, including Bart Collins, clinical associate professor of communication and director of health care communications at Regenstrief Center, to study heart health throughout the state. The goal is to reduce the incidence of heart disease in the high-risk African-American populations in Gary and Indianapolis.

*Future topics of study will include health care delivery processes, the development of preventive services, the development of community-academic partnerships in addressing health care disparities and enhancing access to quality health resources among underserved communities and populations.

Link to Mohan Dutta's Difference Makers site:

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