Rural Black youth face a future with high rates of chronic disease compounded by limited access to prevention programs and services. As in urban areas, the underlying socio-economic environment of poverty and disempowerment perpetuate health disparities in rural settings, yet the opportunities for employment are few. Ironically, children of farmers who grew up eating homegrown produce often leave their rural homes for urban jobs in fast food restaurants or low wage, high-risk meat processing plants. Getting youth involved in farming is viewed as a way to build a strong work ethic, promote physical and cognitive development, and as a protective factor to keep children from drug and gang involvement. Rebuilding the local food system is an enormous task, but one that may have significant pay off in addressing many health disparities and social determinants. The burgeoning interest in local and sustainable food systems is opening the door for rural economic development and increased access to healthy, affordable food. Because churches remain one of the most viable rural organizations in the Black community, we propose a community-based participatory research effort to explore rebuilding local food economies. We will work collaboratively with four rural Black churches (two intervention and two delayed intervention control), forming a youth action team of church mentors and youth to conduct an assessment of the food system. The results will be used to 1) identify critical challenges to accessing healthy food and physical activity;2) develop 5 church-based intervention teams using training and experiential learning related to food systems, nutrition, physical activity, entrepreneurship, and empowerment;and 3) use a controlled trial to compare the effects of the church-based intervention on the primary outcome (increased fruit and vegetable consumption), and on the secondary outcomes of attitudes about nutrition, health, food systems and perceived control. This pilot will allow us to determine the expected effect size to inform the sample size needed for a larger study. Our findings will help researchers and the community better understand whether local food systems work can be used as a vehicle to target risk factors (diet) for chronic disease and address broader issues of health disparities.
We propose a church-academic partnership to develop and pilot an intervention for North Carolina church- based youth focused on the local food system as a way to promote a healthier diet and physical activity, while building skills that will enable youth to improve their economic well-being. Using rural food systems as a way to target health disparities will benefit both researchers and community partners by helping to better understand whether food systems skill-building can be used to reduce risk factors for chronic disease.