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KU Medical Center researcher focuses on eliminating food deserts across rural Kansas

New grant-funded project to address food insecurity issues in six areas across the state

Cardboard boxes filled with fresh vegetables and fruit are lined up in a row
Providing boxes of fresh food was one way to deal with food insecurity issues during the pandemic

Though many families in Kansas are close to fields that produce crops, they’re also likely part of an area that’s officially a food desert. Food deserts are geographic areas where residents don’t have access to affordable, healthy food options (especially fresh fruits and vegetables) because they don’t live within 10 miles of a large food retailer. This is true in many low-income urban areas, but in Kansas, an agricultural state, food deserts are a major issue in rural and frontier areas as well.

Because so many farms in Kansas grow commodity crops such as soybeans, wheat and field corn, there is little variety of edible fresh foods such as green beans, carrots and spinach available for purchase in the communities surrounding them. With residents’ limited access to healthier foods, chronic diseases are persistent in these areas. Kansans living in the “breadbasket of America” have significantly higher rates of diabetes, colon cancer and heart disease — and after a lifetime of highly processed, high-fat and high-sugar foods, they are more likely to have poor outcomes when experiencing a health emergency.

Kristina Bridges, Ph.D., research assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Kansas Medical Center, has been interested in this issue for a long time. She grew up in Southern California, surrounded by a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. In high school she was living in a rural area in the Missouri Bootheel, where fresh foods were not as plentiful.

Bridges earned a doctorate in microbiology at KU Medical Center, but she had a significant interest in nutrition, taking additional graduate courses in that department. That’s what led her to pursue food security research — and how nutrition affects the overall health in populations with little access to healthy foods. Her study of bacteria and colon cancer in racial ethnic minority groups led to further research about diet, access to healthy food and the causes of health inequities.

In 2017, her research resulted in a list of questions that all patients within The University of Kansas Health System are asked during visits with their doctors. “We asked if the patient worried about access to food in their household,” she said. “We looked at those who answered ‘yes’ and also had underlying issues like pre-diabetes and Type 2 diabetes.”

With help from a grant from Blue Cross Blue Shield KC, the researchers reached out to the patients in Wyandotte County and provided them with food boxes, connected them with resources in the community and continued to learn about the circumstances limiting their access to food. Just as that pilot program was taking off, COVID-19 hit, and the project shifted to buying fresh food and delivering food boxes to those who couldn’t leave their homes to shop.

“We learned a lot from the data we collected,” Bridges said. “It was evidence that it’s important for our communities to have this type of structure set up in case of emergencies or catastrophic events so we would know how to react and help the most vulnerable people.”

A new grant to fund research on Kansas food deserts

In 2022, Bridges’ previous research caught the eye of the Sunflower Foundation, a Topeka-based non-profit dedicated to building healthier Kansas communities. Now they have funded a new project in six Kansas areas, including western and southeast Kansas, Wichita, Lawrence and Topeka — areas that meet federal requirements to be considered food deserts.

The goal is to learn how to overcome the barriers to healthy foods. “The grant pays for food, but it also funds health workers and helps people with food insecurity connect to resources that exist, while working with stakeholders to come up with better solutions,” Bridges said.

Ideas that have emerged from the project include cooking classes and working with local restaurants to provide pre-made meals. Another idea is providing frozen fruits and vegetables, but that plan has been limited due to transportation and storage issues. Each of the six communities will continue to interact and share ideas as new challenges and fresh solutions come up.

Bridges noted that the research will track three major outcomes over at least three months: A1C levels, blood-pressure levels and weight. The idea is to make a difference in diabetes, which is prevalent in rural areas of the country.

“Eventually we hope to sell these ideas to payers like Medicare, Medicaid and other insurance companies,” Bridges said, “by showing them how reimbursing food transportation expenses is cheaper than paying to treat long-term diseases.”

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