Zucchini as a Gateway Drug: Cultivating food security in Iowa through gardening

cultivateia_fbook_cover2

Elizabeth Danforth Richey, PhD, MPH and Angie Tagtow MS, LD, RD
Iowa Food Systems Council, info@cultivateiowa.org

Do more with less. This mantra has become virtually universal in public health and social programming. In the face of the obesity epidemic and rising food insecurity, food pantries are increasingly taking on the role of nutrition educator and healthy lifestyle coach. Unfortunately, this work is expected to be done without the necessary resources. When healthy eating messages are provided in emergency feeding settings, too much of the food distributed through these networks is processed, shelf-stable foods with limited nutritional value. A food pantry staff explained, “It’s hard to ask clients to do something and not be able to give them the right foods to do it.”

One approach to creating accessible, affordable and healthy food environments is food gardening. Food gardening has become increasingly popular among community-and faith-based organizations, workplaces, schools, and among the general public. Food gardening can not only provide food insecure household with fresh local produce, but it can also infuse food bank and pantry food supplies with healthier foods through produce donation.

cultivateia_newspaper_ad_gardenersIn 2012, the Iowa Food Systems Council (IFSC) received a grant from the Wellmark Foundation to create a social marketing campaign to encourage food gardening as a way to increase the amount of healthy local produce in the food system accessed by food insecure Iowans. The goals of this campaign are to encourage: 1) low-resource Iowans to engage in food gardening and 2) gardeners to donate extra produce to emergency feeding networks (food banks and pantries) in their community. The project was designed and implemented by the IFSC’s Food Access and Health Work Group, a community of practice of 250-some partners engaged in some aspect of household or community food security research and/or programming. The multidisciplinary nature of community-based food security programming lent itself to an anthropological approach to understanding target communities within political, economic, historical, cultural and environmental contexts.

Project funding provided the luxury of 12 months of initial mixed-methods research to assess how messages could be effectively conveyed and the content of a social marketing campaign for each target audience. The assessment investigated the multi-layered challenges related to accessing healthy food, perspectives on gardening and produce consumption, produce donation, accessing fresh produce at food pantries, and other factors that could influence message distribution.

Key findings from the assessment were used as the basis for the state-wide social marketing campaign, including:

  • Broad partner support exists for the campaign, but financial and staffing challenges limit the expansion of garden promotion at an organizational level. 
  • There is low staff/client interaction time at emergency feeding locations.
  • Cost is the main barrier to housing, household resources, and food choice, all of which impact produce consumption rates among food-insecure Iowans.
  • Low-resource Iowans lack space for yard-based gardening, and perceive gardening as a time consuming activity.
  • Gardeners lack awareness of produce donation activities in their community, but are very supportive of the idea.
  • Gardeners are have specific concerns related to produce use and liability.

An executive summary of the initial research can be accessed here.

A marketing team took the key findings identified by researchers, and created the Cultivate Iowa campaign. This campaign was designed to be fun, positive and broad based. Rather than explicitly focusing on gardening as a way for resource-poor people to become less food insecure, it aims to provide general messages about cost savings, ease, and low-input gardening strategies. Implementation strategies, rather than the messages themselves, will target desired audiences. For example, materials will be distributed at WIC clinics and food pantries, and billboards will be placed in low-resource areas. Produce donation messages will focus on community engagement and donating any amount available. Cultivate Iowa aims to empower both low-resource and gardener audiences; a main concern is to avoid paternalistic or negative messages. As a key informant explained, “Zucchini is a gateway drug. Once you get growers hooked on how good donating feels, they will find other produce to share as well.”

The Cultivate Iowa campaign was launched on April 19, and will continue through the 2013 growing season. It will be promoted statewide through the Food Access and Health Work Group. Partner resources include campaign talking points, promotional items, brochures, postcards, posters, and vegetable seeds. In addition, a public and social media strategy will be implemented, including radio and TV, billboards, newspaper ads, Facebook and Twitter.

Beyond the marketing campaign, the initial research identified other issues cultivateia_poster2integral to the success of the campaign, such as supporting food pantries to expand their produce acceptance practices, promoting food panties to register at AmpleHarvest (think on-line dating for gardeners and food pantries), and creating educational materials about safe produce handling and storage practices.

So, how can you engage with the campaign? Regardless of where you live, visit the website to learn how you can cheaply and easily increase the fresh local foods in your diet. Pledge to donate produce in your community and find the nearest produce donation site to you. Help to support local and state level policy that creates garden-friendly communities, including public garden space, and tax incentives for commercial and private produce donation. More information about the campaign can be found at www.cultivateiowa.org.

Research will continue to assess the campaign’s impact on food gardening and produce donation in the state. Future strategies may include more focused efforts to promote state and local gardening-related policy, increasing engagement of retail partners, and more targeted messaging to specific populations such as SNAP users. (A little known fact is that SNAP benefits can be used to purchase edible plants and seeds.) Bringing anthropology to the table has worked to create a more effective program that situates the program objectives within the larger social structures in which the target audiences exist. Ultimately, our goal is to continue to encourage Iowans to Plant. Grow. Share. and to Plant. Grow. Save.

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Filed under agriculture, anthropology, economics, farming, food pantries, food security, gardening, markets, methods, nutrition, obesity, policy, SAFN Member Research, sustainability

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