Each week, Beyond Boulders delivers a new installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow” – an interview series with Schweitzer Fellows across the country and in Gabon, Africa who are leading the movement to eliminate health disparities. For an archive of previous “Five Questions for a Fellow” interviews, click here.
With today’s news that an oil drilling platform has exploded off the Louisiana coast, all eyes are once again on New Orleans—which just last Sunday marked the somber five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina (and the devastating levee failure and flooding that followed).
In the face of such dire and repeated challenges, it’s clear that New Orleans residents have demonstrated more than their fair share of resilience—and still face more than their fair share of health barriers. One such barrier is access to fresh, healthy produce—a problem that manifests itself in increased rates of obesity and related chronic health issues.
That’s why Megan Burns—a Schweitzer Fellow in New Orleans and a student at LSU Health Sciences Center School of Public Health—decided to launch Makin’ Groceries (New Orleans slang for “grocery shopping”).
Read on to learn about this community-schoolyard garden program—a program Burns says, “is uniquely New Orleans by honoring and incorporating the culture and traditions of our community while focusing on nutrition, health, and social justice.”
Why did you decide to develop your particular project?
Before coming to public health I studied and worked in the fields of environmental education and organic agriculture. While working on farms and community gardens, it became impossible for me to ignore the patterns of food access (or lack thereof) and community health.
The community garden I helped to start in my hometown was a great success except for the lack of diversity in income and ethnicity it served. I also noted this discrepancy among the people who bought produce from an organic farm I worked on in south Florida. Growing fresh healthy, produce was fulfilling work but I decided to shift gears towards making this food available to everyone.
I began to research trends in accessibility and community health and fell in love with the field of public health in the process. I moved to New Orleans to work on a Masters of Public Health and quickly joined forces with a neighborhood group working to build a combination community-schoolyard garden a few blocks from my house.
The community-schoolyard garden will be located at James Weldon Johnson School, a public elementary school in New Orleans. I decided to develop the Makin’ Groceries (slang for grocery shopping in New Orleans) program to help lead the programmatic aspect of the effort. I am excited to be working within my own neighborhood on a project that encapsulates my passions as they relate to public health.
The Makin’ Groceries program will focus on building a community-schoolyard garden program that is uniquely New Orleans by honoring and incorporating the culture and traditions of our community while focusing on nutrition, health, and social justice.
It’s well known that the social fabric of New Orleans was devastated by what’s known here as “the storm.” The New Orleans Schweitzer Fellows have a unique responsibility to help restore this social fabric in a way that empowers our target populations and emphasizes the strength and resiliency of our community. I feel community-based garden programs have the ability to bring people together in a way that celebrates health, culture, and fellowship while addressing health disparities throughout the rebuilding process.
What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?
I see the Makin’ Groceries program as catalyst for the development of a garden culture at the James Weldon Johnson School. The School is in the process of building a large, permanent garden that will eventually be incorporated into the curriculum at all grades. The Makin’ Groceries program and ensuing evaluation will be used to lead future curriculum and program activities. The garden culture at Johnson School will be cultivated through activities, events, and conversations centered on food, health, and community.
In addition, I hope the program will be a spark and sounding board for issues of food justice in the community. The program will feature family and community events focusing on food and agriculture traditions, food accessibility, and nutrition.
Multiple levels of the social environment—including students, families, school organization, and community—will be brought to the table to discuss school food environment as well as food accessibility as it relates to our health and well being.
What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?
I am most concerned with the increase in health disparities based on income and race/ethnicity in the United States. Low-income and minority populations consistently and increasingly have poorer health status and less access to care than the general population. These trends are apparent in inequities in rates of adult and childhood obesity, infant mortality, breast cancer outcomes, and diabetes along racial/ethnic and socio-economic lines. This injustice permeates the health of our population and can be seen in communities across the country.
To tackle this problem we need to step back and address the social determinants of health such as access to health care, access to healthy food and green space, education, housing, employment, and freedom from discrimination. This will take interdisciplinary collaboration among political, public, professional, and academic sectors. I feel the people working collaboratively to address inequalities within these social and environmental factors are leading the future of preventative public health.
What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow so far?
I expected the school families and surrounding neighborhoods to be a seamless community. I learned from community members and school administration that as many as two-thirds of the students live outside of the school community, many driving half an hour or more to get to school. This is largely because New Orleans is undergoing a major reorganization and renovation of the public and charter school system.
I was at first disappointed by this news and felt the goals of the program could not be met in these circumstances. However, I have realized that the issues addressed by the program are pertinent for all residents. Makin’ Groceries can be brought into communities all over the city, regardless of their proximity to our physical garden.
What does being a Schweitzer Fellow mean to you?
Although not a particularly religious person, I have always been drawn to St. Francis of Assisi’s counsel to, “Preach the gospel everyday and use words when necessary.” I see this idea echoed in the words of Albert Schweitzer, “Example is not the main thing in influencing others, it is the only thing”.
For me, being a Schweitzer Fellow means committing to work to improve the lives of others through action with humility. It means being accountable to the communities we serve and others who share this commitment. It means striving to become like Albert wherein this work becomes essential and intrinsic. I look forward to continually being motivated and inspired by Albert and his Fellows.
Megan Burns is a Schweitzer Fellow in New Orleans, LA. Click here to read more about The New Orleans Schweitzer Fellows Program and the Fellows like Burns it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects that impact the health of vulnerable communities. To make a gift to The New Orleans Schweitzer Fellows Program in honor of Burns’s efforts to increase access to fresh, healthy produce, click here.