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Grocery Study Helps Mobilize a Health Army

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He resisted the adjective for a few minutes because, oh, maybe it doesn't sound professional enough.

Then David C. Sloane, a professor at the University of Southern California, simply and enthusiastically described the research conducted for a new public health study.

"It was a very cool process," said Sloane, a researcher and teacher for USC's School of Policy, Planning and Development.

Not exactly the way people describe the collecting and analyzing of data, even if it does, as in Sloane's case, relate to issues of race in America's cities. What's more, the study showed that urban communities have significantly less access to healthy, fresh, whole food than more affluent neighborhoods.

But the methodology of this study, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, is indeed a cool, refreshing change from the status quo. In an effort to survey grocery stores in the predominantly poor, African-American neighborhoods of south Los Angeles, Sloane and colleagues at USC and UCLA enlisted the help of community volunteers.

"Our best sources were churches and women's health groups," Sloane said. "We trained them on how to fill out two surveys."

One survey was a sort of checklist that could be finished in 10 to 20 minutes. It was completed for 261 stores in south L.A. to reflect the grocery store's offerings (fresh produce, meat, low-fat milk), cleanliness and service.

The second survey went more in-depth for 54 stores, requiring as long as an hour of the volunteer's time. The volunteers were paid nominal amounts to attend training sessions.

Yet this form of data collection, called community-based participatory research, is not some budget-saving approach. The right-minded concept is to involve the people most affected by the public health issues being examined, whether it is the quality of groceries or, say, attitudes of doctors at local health clinics.

The study's authors write that "African-Americans have good reason to distrust medical and public health researchers." They further state "community-research partnerships respond to the community needs and culture rather than imposing a preconceived idea of what would help the community."

Better yet, it is not a leap to imagine that those dozens of volunteers in south L.A. will become opinion leaders among family members and friends about the decided lack of quality groceries in their neighborhoods. Plus, the churches and women's health groups are grass-roots organizations that convert into agents for public health change.

"Oh, definitely," said Lark Galloway-Gilliam, executive director of the Community Health Councils, which secured the federal grant to conduct the research project and commissioned the study. "People start wondering why we can't have farmers markets or get better service in stores."

Galloway-Gilliam said many of the churches and women's health groups were awarded "small grants" to carry out the research.

"It becomes their issue," she said.

What's more, the community-based participatory research model creates a better system for publicizing the findings. The Community Health Councils has invited and will continue inviting many local churches and groups for meetings to discuss the findings. The USC and UCLA researchers have provided specific data breakouts to allow for customized meetings in which community members can talk about their local stores in detail.

The meetings have reaped action plans for the bottom-line goal of improving the food supply in the south L.A. neighborhoods. One step is to meet with local merchants about their store's inventories.

What's valuable, Galloway-Gilliam said, is that these merchant meetings will involve community members on both sides of the table. Mom-and-pop store owners can explain that perishable food not bought can wreak havoc on a small-business budget. Community members can, perhaps, offer to spread the word about new fresh produce offerings or the availability of non-fat milk (the study showed only 37 percent of south L.A. stores carried non-fat milk versus 81 percent in mostly white, more affluent "contrast" neighborhoods).

Sloane said the new study is likely to serve as a model for other communities "who want to look at their food supplies."

For her part, Galloway-Gilliam isn't about to become complacent.

"The other big piece (of public health in urban areas) is recreational facilities or the lack thereof," she said. "We might have a lot of basketball courts, but how many women play basketball? We lack open space."

Galloway-Gilliam said part of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grant that will go toward examining recreational options in south L.A. She is enthused about the grass-roots momentum of again using community-based participatory research.

"That's what's so cool about this research," she said.


(Bob Condor writes for the Chicago Tribune. Write to him at: the Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60611.)


(c) 2003, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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