Sowing Seeds For Health Equity

May 13, 2021

By Sandra Millon Underwood,
RN, PhD, FAAN
Professor, UW-Milwaukee College of Nursing

Disparities in health experienced by people of color in Southeastern Wisconsin are garnering an increasing amount of attention among residents and advocates in the community. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about 10 percent of health outcomes can be associated with medical care. The other 90 percent are attributed to socioeconomics, discrimination, racism, and a host of other factors that prevent well-being of the body, mind, spirit and environment.

Reports published by the Milwaukee Health Department, Wisconsin Department of Health Services, the CDC, the American Cancer Society, and the local press highlight unprecedented disparities in heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, and other chronic health conditions in Milwaukee. Several note profound inequities in food security, limited fruit and vegetable consumption, and limited access to healthy foods in neighborhoods across Milwaukee. Most shocking are reports that describe the food insecurity in Milwaukee as among the most severe in the nation.

Organizations and individuals in our local community are working to uncover and better understand some of the root causes of health inequities in Wisconsin. They are also working on the design and application of solutions to address modifiable disparities that currently exist.

The Milwaukee Hunger Task Force, reports that there are 13 food deserts in Milwaukee, most of which are in communities of color. Individuals are considered to live in food deserts when there are no grocery stores within a half mile of their residence. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Hunger Task Force estimates that these numbers represent 40 percent of the neighborhoods in Milwaukee County.

In spite of these trends and apparent voids in access to nutritional resources, hope abounds as a group of community partners collaborate to address health disparities and promote health equity by planting and tending community gardens. One such partnership, comprised of Groundwork Milwaukee, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the American Cancer Society, the Wisconsin Well Woman Program, Unsalt’d Life, and Calvary Baptist Church, has developed an engaging and educational platform that addresses food insecurity, nutrition education, and social interaction through the design of a fun and delicious community-based initiative. Hosted throughout May and June by Groundwork Milwaukee and Unsalt’d Life this initiative will present healthy cooking demonstrations at six community garden sites throughout Milwaukee.

Damien DeBuhr, Deputy Director of Programs and Operations at Groundwork Milwaukee, said that Groundwork Milwaukee’s mission is to bring about the sustained regeneration, improvement, and management of the physical environment by developing community-based partnerships that empower people. Groundwork operates a network of 85 to 100 community gardens within the City of Milwaukee. Six of those gardens are part of this health equity initiative.

“At Groundwork, we make sure the community gardens are set up to become ‘health hubs’. We serve as coordinators between our community garden leaders and health resources to ensure we are all on the same page. We are working to build more community connections and provide access to other resources,” said DeBuhr.

Groundwork’s vision for these ‘health hubs’ is three-fold: first, to build up community gardens as a resource where healthy activities, gardening, and cooking demonstrations can be held in a singular location. At the same time, health professionals are on hand to promote additional healthy initiatives. Second, Groundwork wants to build momentum for other health-related resources for garden leaders to use to make a greater impact. For example, some community gardens have yoga instructors on hand to promote activity, or they may host a youth engagement fair and offer resources for basic needs. Third, Groundwork hopes to recruit people in the neighborhood to become more involved in community gardening. To that end, they intentionally welcome and invite residents to take part in the community gardens to build a sense of belonging and ownership.

“In addition to fostering social interaction, gardening also promotes what we call ‘food sovereignty’— the notion that you not only have access to food, but control over the food. Growing your own food is the best way to control what you have available to eat,” said DeBuhr.

Chef Marvin Jones, of ‘Unsalt’d Life’, is a fan favorite at the community gardening sites involved with the health equity project. He prepares and serves up nutritious and tasty food for neighbors to sample, using ingredients that can easily be grown in gardens and highlighting the fact that healthy food does not mean sacrificing flavor.

“To me, health inequity basically means that health initiatives are not as balanced as they should be. It’s not as bad as it once was, but there is always room for improvement. Part of the reason health equity is getting better is because of community involvement initiatives like these and people becoming more involved with their overall health concerns,” said Chef Marvin.

This is in line with the American Cancer Society’s website which promotes that ‘good health starts with good nutrition’. The site features various articles on health, nutrition, and posts healthy recipes—all geared to encouraging healthier lifestyles.

“Growing up, hypertension (high blood pressure), and diabetes never came up in my conversation. Those were things that happened to older people (not me!), because as many young people do, we believe we’re going to live forever. These days I am noticing that younger people are becoming more concerned about healthy living. Some of that is because they see what is happening to their older family members and they are taking preventive measures to avoid some of the health concerns of their elders. Another reason is that they are also seeing younger people being affected by diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, and stroke,” said Chef Marvin.

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The Healthy Eating and Active Living Milwaukee (HEAL) is a culturally-tailored program that aims to provide education, resources to secure healthy foods, and active living supports for adults at-risk for developing lifestyle-related diseases; and, to empower adults to make changes in their physical and social environment to improve nutrition and physical activity. ‘Like’ their Facebook page that’s full of videos of healthy recipes and low-cost, no-cost exercise.

Next week: Engaging Youth in Nutrition, community gardening, and food preparation