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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Putting the Focus on Community Input

One of the first projects that Food Empowerment Project took on was to look at access to healthy foods in communities of color and low-income communities in Santa Clara County, home of the well-to-do Silicon Valley. We surveyed more than 200 locations that sold food (non-restaurants and fast food), such as grocery stores, convenience stores and liquor stores.

In August of 2010, we released the results in our report, Shining A Light on the Valley of Heart’s Delight: Taking a Look at Access to Healthy Foods in Santa Clara County’s Communities of Color and Low-Income Communities.

In our report, we gave only a few recommendations. The reason for this is because we believe that those living in impacted communities are the ones who should decide what they want – not outside agencies or governments. My concern has been that not listening to the communities is why some initiatives have failed.

As an all-volunteer organization (at this time), we do not have the in-house expertise to conduct the type of work necessary to carry out what would be the next phase of our project, so we put out a call for assistance.

While waiting for a researcher, we were lucky to have support from professors and students from Santa Clara University, who used our data to create GIS maps of impacted districts.

Eventually, we garnered the support of Stanford University’s Food Summit. They paired us with a former student, who was able to work with a professor to decide the best direction we should go in for this effort. Among their important feedback was that focus groups were the best next step.

We created a plan for Phase three (which we shared with you at the end of the year).

In addition to having the right questions and the right plan was having a great facilitator. While attending an event put on by a group in East San Jose (Somos Mayfair), I was able to see Lisa Castellanos (whom I had already met) in action; she had all of the right skills, and we were thrilled she was eager to assist!

From there we gathered a great team of volunteers to take notes and videotape the focus groups. Each participant from the community was paid $50 for their time (2 hours) and fed a free vegan meal – vegan tamales, rice and beans.

We did three focus groups with community organizations in San Jose located in some of the most impacted areas in Santa Clara County: Somos Mayfair, Sacred Heart Community Services and CommUniverCity.

Although policy makers at the city, county and state levels were all contacted, none of them attended even briefly to show their support. I had met with them previously, and all had expressed an interest in the issue. Needless to say, I was very disappointed. All I was hoping they or an aide would do would be attend the events and say a few words as to why the community members were important and why they were serious about working on this issue. At least one city council member did respond to express an interest.

We will release a report later with our findings, but just a preview (keep in mind these were all conducted in Spanish):

  • One focus group discussed a particular store in their community (not a convenience or liquor store) where some of the food was moldy. It made them wonder if the store’s management believed that’s all their customers are worth.
  • In every focus group, it was noted that when one neighbor would go to the store they would check around to see if anyone else needed anything. Neighbors often borrowed food from each other without any type of ledger being kept on who owed whom what. This made me start thinking: is this out of need or because of culture? I can’t imagine ever asking ANY of my neighbors to assist or even asking them to borrow any food item. Is it because I have only ever lived in apartments, or is it because I have never truly needed to? They referred to this as “trueque”: a type of bartering based on mutuality and social expectation.
  • Participants emphasized the close relationship they have with food: to taste, to feel, to smell. They clearly care about what they feed their families, which is counter to the misconception many people have about communities of color: that they don't care what their kids eat and prefer to give them fast, easy food. On the contrary, all the participants talked about their weekly shopping excursions to find the best, freshest products. They are, as Lisa Castellanos puts it, domestic strategists, and they were excited to share how they make meal preparation miracles happen every day. This is important information as many have suggested a possible solution could be food-delivery services, such as those offered by Safeway, which simply may not be successful in these communities.
  • In every focus group at least one person was familiar with what vegan meant, and in two of the focus groups, a parent had a child who was vegan for ethical reasons. Again, this type of information and their interest in vegan food preparation would not have been revealed were it not for the fact that we were asking these types of questions.

  • As we also asked about access to vegan foods such as soymilk and “meat” alternatives, there was discussion about lactose intolerance and also a desire to have more options.

Food Empowerment Project wants to thank all of our donors who support us, as this was a costly and important aspect of our work, and we could not have done it without your financial support.

We also want to give a big thanks to Stanford University’s Food Summit, Flacos, Antonella Dewell, Katie Gera, Lisa Castellanos, Thoi Pham, Mark Hawthorne, Jessica Sanchez (and her mom), Nicole Latham, Martin Saunders, Iris Stewart-Frey, Katherine Connors, Emily Francis, and all of the community groups that participated: Somos Mayfair, Sacred Heart Community Services and CommUniverCity.

We look forward to sharing our results with you!

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