A new $6.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, in collaboration with the Reuben V. Anderson Institute for Social Justice at Tougaloo College, Delta Health Center, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), will fund the collaborative development of community-based programs to increase local production and consumption of fruits and vegetables in the Mississippi Delta.
If successful, it is believed the effort will simultaneously lower risk factors that result in the region having some of the highest rates of obesity and diabetes in the U.S.—and ultimately save billions in healthcare costs.
Although the Mississippi Delta has some of the U.S.’s most fertile soil and is deeply rooted in cultural values, generations of communities in Mississippi have experienced health inequities intertwined with discrimination, poverty, and racial exclusion. Over 77 percent of Mississippi counties meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s definition of food deserts.
The project focuses on three counties—Bolivar, Washington, and Sunflower—where over 65 percent of the 100,000 residents identify as Black or African American and about 30 percent live at or below the poverty level. More than 50 percent of women and 40 percent of men living in these counties have obesity, and the rate of diabetes is almost double the national average.
To develop the program, the team from the four institutions—as well as Tufts University School of Medicine and Tufts Medical Center—will engage a variety of local stakeholders, including growers, health and agriculture educators, food retailers and community-based organizations.
“We are excited to work with our collaborators in the Delta to build on efforts already underway to increase access to locally grown fresh food and create economic opportunities for local farmers,” said Christina Economos, dean ad interim of the Friedman School, the New Balance Chair in Childhood Nutrition, professor of nutrition, and co-principal investigator on the grant. “Together, we will be expanding on decades of impactful community-engagement studies at Tufts addressing health disparities across the U.S.”
The study is an outgrowth of the Food is Medicine (FIM) movement, which recognizes the link between nutrition and chronic diseases. FIM programs include such things as health clinic mobile food markets, patient prescriptions to obtain and eat healthier food, and produce delivery mechanisms that make healthier foods like fruits and vegetables easier to access for those in food deserts.