By BECKY GILLETTE
“Preventative health care is a lot cheaper than what we have traditionally done”
Charkarra Anderson-Lewis, Ph.D., was only 15 years old when her mother, 36, died from heart disease. It had a lasting impression on Anderson-Lewis, a University of Southern Mississippi (USM) Department of Health associate professor who recently received a $2,000 grant to institute a mobile produce market “Fresh Food on the Move Mississippi” program designed to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to people who might not have access to or being able to afford these healthy foods.
“A lot of my passion for working in public health came from the experience of losing my mother when she was so young,” Anderson-Lewis said. “I’m the oldest of five children, so this was also hard on my younger brothers and sisters. I got my undergraduate degree in biology and pre-med at USM. But instead of going to medical school, I decided I wanted to work on the preventative side of health. Public health gave me the opportunity to do that. Everything I’ve done has been in the arena of preventative health care.”
Anderson-Lewis has concentrated on providing assistance to low-income and minority communities—often in rural areas–with large health disparities including higher rates of diabetes, obesity, heart disease, hypertension and some types of cancer.
“All of those things have to do with how you eat and take care of yourself,” Anderson-Lewis said. “But many people don’t even know what some of the basic fruits and vegetables are. They haven’t been exposed to things like broccoli, kale and avocados.”
Sometimes it is a matter of access. No grocery stores in the area carry fresh fruits and vegetables, and there are no farmers’ markets.
Affordability is also an issue.
“Some people want these things, but they go to the grocery store and see how much money they have, and decide they want things that will stay in cabinet longer and won’t spoil,” she said. “So they get more processed food because it is cheaper and has a longer shelf life.”
The Fresh Food on the Move project she is working on involves using students to introduce healthful foods to people, and also educate them about how a better diet can help prevent many diseases. The program will be part of course work for both undergraduate and graduate students.
Anderson-Lewis taught her own children about healthful foods. Like many parents, she initially found some resistance. It isn’t unusual for kids to like chips and candy more than fruits and vegetables.
“There was a point where I had to make my children eat certain things, but now they just eat it because it is what I have in my house,” said Anderson-Lewis, who has a 13-year-old daughter and a seven-year-old son. “It is important to expose kids to good food choices leading to a lifestyle where they might eat more of those things. I recently went to a Hattiesburg Foster Grandparent program, and had the opportunity to take bags of fruits and veggies that people won by landing on bingo squares with healthy food information. The foster grandparents were so excited to have some fresh food to take with them.”
As a health educator, she tries to make the messages entertainment and appealing. So she uses avenues like the bingo game.
“We want to do something more engaging than giving someone a handout that they might not even end up reading,” Anderson-Lewis said. “It can be a bingo game or some other type of game. I’ve had students design games similar to Family Feud or Jeopardy that make learning fun, as well as educational.”
She envisions the mobile food market being about more than just food. She hopes to get nursing students attend to give blood pressure checks, or physical education students come to talk about physical exercise.
And she hopes the mobile food market is just the beginning.
“My desire is to work with some farmers, schools and local businesses who might be willing to help with this project,” she said. “The money I got will only last so long. Hopefully, this is something that will grow. Our farmers’ market here opens in a couple of weeks. I will make an appearance there to work with some of the farmers to see if they can help with this initiative. There are possibly grocery stores that would be interested. There are other grants I can apply for. Anyone who is interested in this initiative, I want to try to get them on board.”
Anderson-Lewis likes the idea of school or community gardens. Children more likely to eat something that they grew. They will want to try it, and may encourage others in their family to try it.
It is all about a proactive approach to health care.
“I think what we are seeing in the U.S. is we tend focus more on the back end of things like tertiary care instead of on the front end with things like diet and exercise,” she said. “Those things are less expensive than a triple bypass surgery. Even more important is the quality of life they have. Someone with diabetes who is 50 years old can live another 20 to 25 years or more, but their quality of life won’t be as good. And people who are not well may not be able to work, which might mean they need more government assistance. Thinking how we can do things with preventative healthcare is a lot cheaper than what we have traditionally done. High rates of illnesses in our population can lead us into a financial crisis in the U.S. because we spend so much money treating the diseases.”
The grant was received from the USM Center for Community and Civic Engagement (CCCE). It was the first grant for the Conville Service-Learning Development Award for graduates of USM’s Faculty Fellow Seminar on Service-Learning to pursue new service-learning initiatives.