Creating an oasis in a food desert

Southwest Advocacy Group (SWAG) clients

Creating an oasis in a food desert

By Nicole La Hoz

Meera Bhakta, M.P.H., often sees a woman collecting phone numbers at the Linton Oaks community garden. Once people are done tending their fruits and vegetables, that woman leads a phone number exchange.

Her reasoning: If community members cannot water their plants, at least they have a phone list to ask for help.

“When community members start to take parts of your project as their own, that means there’s a good chance of success,” Bhakta said.

She is one-third of a group from the College of Public Health and Health Professions leading SWAG Oasis, a grant-funded collaboration between the Southwest Advocacy Group, or SWAG, and PHHP to help southwest Gainesville overcome its “food desert” status, a designation given to areas with low access to healthy food but high access to junk food.

Food deserts typically have a lack of transportation, limited financial access and grocery stores more than a mile away.

Darryl Pastor, M.P.H., also a recent graduate, serves as project coordinator, and Martin Wegman, a third-year M.D.-Ph.D. student and doctoral candidate in the department of epidemiology in PHHP and the College of Medicine, is the primary investigator.

“Our grant is trying to provide nutritional resources and improve access and nutrition education for areas that are low income or underprivileged,” said Bhakta, co-investigator of SWAG Oasis and a recent PHHP graduate. 

SWAG Oasis offers free Zumba classes for community members.

SWAG Oasis offers free Zumba classes for community members.

A community garden is just one component of SWAG Oasis. Since the project’s launch in the spring, it has coupled healthy eating initiatives with fitness programs, such as cooking demonstrations and Zumba classes.

“Everything we’re doing is designed to bring the community together,” Pastor said.

Last fall, Wegman and the UF Mobile Outreach Clinic received a $25,000 American Medical Association Foundation grant to jumpstart SWAG Oasis.

Although zoning restrictions prevented them from hosting a farmers’ market, Wegman, Bhakta, Pastor and undergraduate intern Ansley Hobbs tweaked the food-access portion of the project to include Florida Organic Growers, an organic agriculture nonprofit.

The organization consistently brings produce to a convenience store across from the SWAG Family Resource Center, an alternative to the junk food surrounding the area.

Florida Organic Growers contributes to the community garden, too, weaving community relationships into healthy living.

“People who normally wouldn’t meet are talking through this project,” Pastor said.

Children also love it, the program’s leaders say. Last summer, SWAG Oasis began focusing on children’s health through gardening programs and interactive education on food options, including provided breakfast and snacks. It is a kid-friendly version of the project’s “meet and eat” lunches.

“Rather than lecturing, there’s more dialogue and back-and-forth discussion about different topics in the community,” Pastor said.

With a dynamic environment, community members invest themselves in health topics. Whether residents end up making good or bad choices, SWAG Oasis helps empower them to make decisions on their own, Pastor said.

“Their only choice shouldn’t be the bad one,” he said.