WCU professor studies healthy eating demographics
Green space and gardens dominate much of the Western North Carolina landscape, but what determines whether people here actually eat the fruits and veggies that abound? That’s what April Tallant, health professor at WCU, hopes to find out as she crunches the numbers from her latest research project.
“There’s not a lot of information out there about what does our baseline look like,” she said. “Do we face the same barriers urban areas face, even though we’re surrounded by gardens and farmers markets?”
Rural areas like WNC have wider health disparities between the two ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, and they’re also less studied than their urban counterparts. In fact, Tallant is the first to have looked at the barriers to fruit and vegetable consumption in the eight western counties — and what could help people overcome those barriers.
“We’re already understudied. We already suffer deep health disparities,” she said. “We need to look at this in our region.”
So, Tallant lined up focus groups, interviews and surveys with a total 242 participants, quizzing them on the factors that deter them from consuming fruits and vegetables.
Most participants agreed that produce costs more than other foods and is more difficult to prepare. That, Tallant said, is consistent with the literature already out there.
But unlike other studies of this type, Tallant’s research also looked into what helps people eat more fruits and vegetables.
“I think probably what makes this study a little more unique is we asked about facilitators,” she said.
Over half of the survey respondents said they would be willing to eat more fruits and vegetables if a doctor told them to.
Study subjects offered up their own ideas of what might prompt them to eat more fruit and vegetables. They acknowledged that there’s a lot of personal responsibility involved in diet and said that if they planned ahead better and chopped up fruits and veggies ahead of time, making them as easy to grab as a bag of potato chips, they would probably eat more of them.
But, they said, classes such as menu planning and food demonstrations would help them do a better job of cooking healthy meals. The participants were well aware that fruit- and vegetable-rich diets are healthier, but they wanted help learning how to incorporate them into quick, budget-friendly meals. That knowledge might prove helpful to healthcare educators and extension workers.
“That might be something you could build upon when you do these programs,” Tallant said.
Other recommendations from the study include distributing recipe cards at grocery stores and farmers markets and improving advertising at farmers markets, giving prospective customers a better idea of what’s available. Participants also expressed interest in increasing salad bars and other vegetable offerings at grocery stores and restaurants.
But there’s still plenty more to come out of the study. Tallant is continuing to examine the effect of income, religion and food stamp and food bank enrollment on responses, for starters.
“I feel like this is just the beginning,” she said.
It’s a beginning that’s possible, though, with the help of Mountain Wise, a nonprofit that promotes healthy communities. Tallant launched the project after Sarah Tennyson, who works for Mountain Wise, approached her with the idea of funding it.
“She’s the whole reason I’m doing this project,” Tallant said.
The bigger reason, though, is to promote healthy diets in WNC. People who eat more fruits and vegetables lower their risk of chronic disease, and because no study like Tallant’s has ever been conducted in WNC before, she said, it’s important to understand what stands in people’s way when it comes to putting together a healthy plate.
“The end result to me will be a better health outcome and a better quality of life for the people in the region,” she said.