Pontiac Picks Up on Produce

Fruit in Baskets

Good health is linked with regular physical activity and eating fruits and vegetables.  But what happens when your community does not have a grocery store, or when you don’t have enough money to buy healthy food?  How can you reach your full potential?   That is the problem that an Oakland County community coalition began to address back in 2011, and continues to work on today.

The City of Pontiac is located within Oakland County, Michigan. 34% of Pontiac residents are below poverty level, and 80% of school children are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Pontiac is plagued with health disparities (or differences in health outcomes) in the leading causes of death such as heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. These disparities are associated with poor nutrition and low physical activity.

 

Healthy Pontiac, We Can (HPWC) is a local community coalition funded in part through the Michigan Health and Wellness 4 x 4 Plan.  Facilitated by The Oakland County Health Division, the coalition brings together a diverse group of partners to find answers to help fight obesity and chronic disease in their area.  The partnership breaks down barriers, empowering the community to pool resources, increase communication and avoid duplication of efforts. 

 

In 2011, the coalition began to look at what was preventing residents from eating fruits and vegetables by surveying the residents themselves.  The results found that:

  • 62% of residents surveyed identified barriers to purchasing fruits and vegetables including cost and lack of accessibility, variety, and quality of produce

  • 12% of respondents said that it was difficult or very difficult to get to a store that offers a variety of fruits and vegetables

  • 19% of individuals do not buy fruits and vegetables at a grocery store

     

    That same year, the coalition also conducted the Nutrition Environment Assessment Tool (NEAT), which revealed community-level policies and environments were “Not at all supportive of healthy eating” with a score of 33 out of 155. 


    Based on these findings, the coalition created the following goals:

  • Increase availability of affordable fruits and vegetables by launching weekly produce markets that accept EBT/SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits while offering low cost fresh fruits and vegetables to residents year round.

  • Increase fruit and vegetable intake through tailored nutrition education sessions offered on-site at the produce markets.

On-site nutrition education sessions, in partnership with a SNAP Education grant received by Oakland County Health Department, reinforce increased fruit and vegetable consumption to SNAP eligible customers. These tastings and recipe demonstrations focus on identification of fruits and vegetables, food preparation, preferences, and cooking skills.     

Research shows increasing access to fruits and vegetables will not change intake patterns alone. Baseline data gathered from 2014 SNAP Ed evaluation surveys at these produce markets confirms this finding.  Market customers surveyed show the average daily consumption of fruits and vegetables were 2.4 and 2.9 servings per day respectively.  Post data shows the average daily consumption of both fruits and vegetables increased to 3.1 for individuals participating in nutrition education.  For participants that attended a minimum of two face-to-face nutrition sessions, there was a 47% increase in fruit consumption and a 35% increase in vegetable consumption.  These results show nutrition education opportunities are still needed to increase intake among these clients.

To make it easier to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, the coalition decided to offer fresh produce at a location where residents were already visiting for other business.  The Oakland Livingston Human Services Agency (OLHSA) volunteered their location as the home of the new produce market.  The agency was already providing valuable community services, so the market was a perfect fit with their mission as a Community Action Agency to “empower people in need of our assistance who live in the communities we serve, to gain the knowledge, skills, and resources to improve the quality of their lives”.   

The market is open every Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.  In addition to the clients coming into the human services agency, over 800 families drop their children off to a nearby charter school and Head Start each morning, so hours were set for times with the highest foot traffic, further encouraging client participation in the market initiative. 

Robert Clark, Oakland Livingston Human Services Agency (OLHSA) Deputy Director, was the founding Market Manager.  He knew that it would change lives.  “There is nothing like seeing a child leave the produce market with a fresh piece of fruit in their hand and a smile on their face”.  Jason Blanks, OLHSA Deputy Director for Organizational Development, is the current produce Market Manager.  He touted the great work that had been done before him, “There was such a great foundation already in place that it allowed me the time to look for additional partnerships and sources of funding to allow for continuation of the market”.  

Customers refer to the agency’s market as a “one-stop shop” where they can receive human services and buy fresh fruits and vegetables.  Mr. Blanks remembers one client with severe disabilities that required a special diet.   She came to the market weekly because it was much easier than traveling the far distance to her closest grocery store. The agency market would often do special orders just to ensure they had the items this client needed. 

Developing a produce market within a social service agency didn’t come without challenges.  At first, many customers assumed the produce was free.  “Many of our clients didn’t understand why our agency would charge for the items in the market”, said Mr. Blanks.  However, by ensuring that the prices within the market were very reasonable and teaching clients about the purpose of the market, many of the agency’s regular clients became the market’s biggest supporters.  Both Mr. Blanks and Mr. Clark agreed that the development of the market was a life changing event for many of the residents of the community and they are proud to be a part of it. 

For additional information about the Healthy Pontiac, We Can! Coalition, please visit www.healthypontiac.org, or find them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/healthypontiac.mi,  Email inquiries can be sent to healthypontiac@gmail.com.