Faith and fresh vegetables

Faith-based communities promote healthy eating

STEVENS SQUARE — To understand what makes the Stevens Square Farmers Market special, you’d have to wander beyond the Plymouth Congregational Church parking lot where vendors set up their stands each Wednesday beginning in July.

The Groveland Emergency Food Shelf in the church’s basement would be a good place to start. After each market, vendors send several boxes of fresh fruit and produce down to the food shelf, supplementing the diets of about 1,000 people who visit each month.

In two nearby community gardens, Stevens Square residents raise small plots of vegetables. Much of the produce, when harvested, is carried back to the neighborhood’s small apartments and condos for dinner — but some also finds its way into the food shelf’s pantry every week.

Those connections between church and neighborhood have the potential to make members of both healthier, a new report argues.

“Faith and Food: Action Strategies for Healthy Eating,” a collection of case studies from Minnesota and across the country, highlights the growing role faith-based organizations have in promoting healthful eating. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that promotes sustainable food and trade systems, released the study in March.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota funded the report through its Prevention Minnesota initiative, an effort to combat cancer and heart disease by attacking root causes, such as unhealthy eating.

Food and health

Blue Cross reports unhealthy eating combined with a lack of physical activity contribute to obesity, diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease, which together are the second-leading cause of preventable death in the United States. And the problem is getting “worse and worse,” said Dr. Marc Manley, vice president and medical director for population health.

“There are more and more people … who are developing diseases caused by obesity — like diabetes and heart disease — at earlier and earlier ages,” Manley said. “It’s a tremendous health problem for this country and our state.”

Two-thirds of Minnesotans are considered overweight, and just more than a quarter are considered obese, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

“Eating unhealthy foods is a major cause of obesity, and in some ways probably the biggest cause of it,” he said.

Manley said “Faith and Food,” along with previous studies, convinced him churches and other faith-based organizations could be an effective venue for encouraging healthier eating habits.

“There is good evidencefaith-based organizations can help people improve their diet,” he said.

Serving the community

Stevens Square Community Organization (SSCO) Board Member Katie Dailey said the farmers market was established, in part, to meet a long-time neighborhood demand for better access to fresh fruits and vegetables. The nearest full-service grocery store is about a mile away.

“As long as I’ve been involved with the community organization, that’s been something people are just screaming for,” Dailey said.

After testing the farmer’s market concept in another neighborhood location in 2007, it opened for its first full season in the Plymouth parking lot last summer. Dailey, a Plymouth member, helped to connect the organizations.

Market manager Robert Skafte said the new location at the intersection of Nicollet and Franklin avenues greatly increased the visibility of the small market, which regularly hosts three vendors. It also boosted attendance, which benefited everyone involved, Skafte added.

“Then the vendors are happy and the food shelf gets more food because, I swear, the days when the vendors would do very well, the boxes were overflowing,” Skafte said.

Those donations may be even more important this summer. Plymouth Outreach Coordinator Connie Marty said the food shelf experienced a dramatic increase in usage.

“[Food shelf manager] Dave [Enghusen] told me earlier this year that, since January, usage at food shelf has gone up 70 percent,” Marty said.

‘A unique connection’

JoAnne Berkenkamp, director of IATP’s Local Foods Program, said “Faith and Food” showed faith-based organizations promote the eating of healthy, locally grown foods for various reasons.

“For some, it really is about personal health,” Berkenkamp said. “For others, it’s a much broader commitment that relates to social justice, for instance, or to protecting the environment.”

What they share, though, is a unique connection to the communities they serve.

“They are trusted by the communities they are in,” Berkenkamp said. “They are highly committed to the well-being of their members and their neighbors, and often the broader community. And, thirdly, they really know how to organize people.”

Other case studies in “Faith and Food” included: a church-sponsored canning event in Missouri; a Chicago organization that produces locally raised halal meat for the Muslim community; and an Oregon faith community that hosts a drop-off point for a local community supported agriculture farm.

“Many different faith communities are taking on this issue,” Manley said. “It’s really convinced us it’s a smart way, an efficient way to work with communities.”