Building an oasis

Building an oasis

UF students address ‘food desert’ problems in southwest Gainesville

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 can’t 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.

Bhakta is one-third of a group from the UF 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., 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, coinvestigator of SWAG Oasis and a recent PHHP graduate.

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 class Thursday afternoon.

“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. The group also teamed up with The Family Garden and the nonprofit Florida Organic Growers and will begin holding a farmers’ market in the area within the next month. Members of the community will be able to purchase produce with cash or EBT.

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. This summer, SWAG Oasis began focusing on children’s health through gardening programs and interactive education on food options, including providing breakfast and snacks. It’s 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.