By Matt Kelly

In October of 2017, Common Ground Health dedicated itself to the Food and Health Connection project, an on-going exploration of the disconnect between our region’s agricultural abundance and the high rates of diet-related health issues in many of our communities. Together with partners at S2ay Rural Health Network, Foodlink and a steering committee of local experts, the project is seeking to learn more about the access that different communities have to fruits and vegetables, and how these varying levels of access are connected to rates of diet-related illnesses.

"We know what the data are showing us," says Melissa Pennise, associate director of strategic initiatives for Common Ground. She’s referring to the work done by the steering committee in previous months which has found that the problems of food insecurity and diet-related illnesses are not evenly distributed across our region; that even within a single county, access to fruit and vegetables can vary significantly between communities. "Now we want to dig a little bit deeper and actually talk to people, to learn about their experiences."

So over the past year, Common Ground has hosted a series of six community cafés in nine counties across the Finger Lakes. Based on the world café model that's commonly used in social sciences, these gatherings bring people from various communities together in a casual group setting to break bread and have a conversation about specific issues. In this case, the conversations are focused on the participants' access to and regular consumption of fruits and vegetables.

Ultimately, the insights from these conversations will be shared with organizations that are serving local communities on a daily basis to help improve existing food access programs or inspire new ones.

Participants for each gathering were drawn from specific groups such as parents with school-aged children, regional public health directors, academics, other non-profit organizations, or partners in regional health initiatives. In November, Pennise hosted a café with church leaders from Common Ground’s health ministry program.  

"We provide meals at all of our community cafés, and sometimes we can provide an extra incentive like a gift card," she says. "But in general we find people come to us because they know we’re listening."

And the things Pennise heard from the church members show why these cafés are incredibly helpful to the continued work of the Food and Health Connection project.

Like most cafés, church members emphasized that transportation is a challenge, says Pennise.

“You have to be wherever everybody is,” said one participant. “That’s easy to say because we can’t put little mini farmers markets everywhere people are. But I think if you can reach the dominant locations within the communities and neighborhoods, then that might make a difference.”

"Nobody was saying bring us a box of free food," Pennise emphasizes. "It was about how can we be more involved in the experience of eating and nourishing ourselves and each other."

While the primary goal of the cafés is to learn from people — to hear about their day-to-day issues — it’s certainly a bonus when the participants begin making connections with each other around solutions.

"People are there talking about their issues, talking about how they’ve addressed them," says Pennise. "That can have sort of a light bulb moment for somebody else in the room to say, 'This is something I could do too.'"

Pennise was surprised and intrigued when participants started asking each other about how to prepare and have healthy food ready to eat during a busy day, a busy week, a busy life.

When people are used to a certain kind of diet that doesn't include many fruits and vegetables, they need to make a conscious effort to change what they eat — three meals a day and all the snacks in between. For many people, that can add up to a lot of choices and decisions that require time and energy, and it can feel overwhelming.

"Making conscious decisions is exhausting when you have just the normal work day and your normal family life," says Pennise. "Then if you add in things like transportation barriers, cost barriers, employment problems — it’s going to be more exhausting to make those everyday decisions."

And that’s when people often give up. So Pennise was excited to hear the participants sharing the routines they’ve created to reduce the number of decisions in their daily lives and increase the amount of vegetables they eat.

“The easiest thing for me that I found out is as soon as I go grocery shopping, I do not sit down until everything is cut up and divvied up,” said another café participant. She said explained that her oldest son still lives with her family and that he loves cutting up vegetables. She will leave things like peppers and onions for him to take care of. “When he gets home from work, he chop, chop, chop. And I open up the freezer and it’s bags of vegetables.”

At the very end of this particular café, the participants also provided some interesting feedback to Pennise: there needs to be more men involved.

“I think we should get a male perspective because it's different from ladies. And the issues are different from men and women,” one participant pointed out. And everyone in the room agreed.

"I think they looked around the table and saw there were only women," says Pennise. This café was not an exception; the participants in all previous cafés have overwhelmingly been women.

"We should definitely be mindful of the people we were able to get around the table as we think about the results of the café," says Pennise. She says this is true for all the cafés that Common Ground Health has hosted to date and will host in the coming months.

We’d like to thank everyone who has taken part in our cafés. Your thoughts and input are greatly appreciated.