If good nutrition starts with a healthy source of food, what happens if the source is limited? What if that limited source is the only source? What if the “neighborhood grocery” is little more than a corner convenience store?
On Tuesday, six students studying social work at Keuka started asking questions like this in door-to-door interviews in the JOSANA (Jay-Orchard Street Area Neighborhood Association) community in the city of Rochester. It was part of a collaborative project, known as a neighborhood needs assessment, between the Finger Lakes Health Systems Agency, the Charles Settlement House and the College. As part of New York State Department Of Health’s Healthy Kids initiative, tackling the touchy issue of obesity, Keuka students conducted surveys of residents in that area, and will analyze their findings and return them to the Settlement House staff, who will, in turn, pass on the discoveries to the state government.
“Often in impoverished communities, folks don’t have access to a grocery store,” said Julie Burns-Percy, assistant professor of social work. “They are bound by bus routes, they don’t have a car, and they can’t walk to any [suburban] grocery stores, just a corner store. So, corner convenient stores – stocked with a lot of processed foods and junk foods – become a primary shopping avenue.”
According to Burns-Percy, these corner stores rarely stock reasonably priced fruits and vegetables that more people would want to serve.
As part of their work, students will be challenged how to engage with those living in that community, to hone their interviewing and research skills, and to consider their own safety as they work.
According to senior Samantha Strally, it can be very difficult for residents in those city communities to be comfortable speaking with those who don’t live in their neighborhood. Last year, Strally participated in a similar project Burns-Percy led examining whether a block club could be built in another impoverished city neighborhood that Burns-Percy described as having “the lowest in everything good and the highest in everything bad,” she recalled.
There, students discovered many residents did not respond to knocks on the door, and the few who did seemed to find it difficult to answer questions fully because their understanding of the project was limited, Strally recalled. For Tuesday’s project, however, Strally estimated that she and her survey partner averaged two interviews for each side of each street they were assigned to cover.
“We got a lot of great feedback from those who did answer their doors and agree to speak with us. There were people who wanted more access to fruits and vegetables. We found, actually, that (some) people were starting their own gardens in their backyards,” she said. “It was really nice to see that initiative. But of course, not everyone can afford that or not everyone has that knowledge base to start that. So, having them involved in that project was great and gives (others) that opportunity.”
Burns-Percy added that it’s important for Keuka students to partner with other organizations so they can get real-life experience of doing outreach in a community, and giving back to those in it, all within the context of classroom instruction.
“Our students are a spoke in the wheel of something important,” she said. “It’s a higher level project for them to engage in.”
While some students new to this kind of project were nervous at first, Strally said, by the time they all held a roundtable discussion at a coffee shop at the end of the day, everyone agreed that they became more comfortable as they continued talking with residents.
“You might not be in the best area, but there are good people [there]. These communities are basically like every other community, except people are just scared and don’t have the resources to make things better,” Strally said. “We’re going to analyze the information and get that qualitative and quantitative data back to the settlement house. That should help [them] start working with ideas and getting things set up.”
Senior Greg Shoff also worked with Burns-Percy for both projects. Being a part of that positive change, he said, made him feel he has grown as an individual.
“To me, the heart of social work is building relationships. The strongest relationships can be built when you work face-to-face, hear the voices of [those in] the communities, and put your heart out there,” he said. “[We’re] encouraged to become part of the communities around us … We use what we learn from our readings and in the class, and get a feel for the real world.”