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Students Tackle Barriers to Accessing Healthy Food in Chester

Students Tackle Barriers to
Accessing Healthy Food in Chester

by Linda Hou '13

Chester Community Fellows
Chester Community Fellows, from left: Andrew Hernandez '13, Christina Keller '14, Akunna Uka '14, Morgan Bartz '14, Elowyn Corby '13, Naomi Liang '12, Julio Alicea '13, Natali Cortes '13, and Erik Heany '14.

From education to the environment, nine students recently explored various aspects of social justice through the Lang Center's Chester Community Fellows Program. For their project in common, the Fellows - Julio Alicea '13, Morgan Bartz '14, Elowyn Corby '13, Natali Cortes '13, Erik Heaney '14, Andrew Hernandez '13, Christina Keller '14, Naomi Liang '12 and Akunna Uka '14, - explored issues of food justice. Working with Greener Partners at its community supported agricultural farm in Media, Pa., they specifically focused on developing methods that Greener Partners and Chester-based non-profit organizations can use to bring healthy, affordable food into the city.

Currently, there is no grocery store within Chester's city limits. The city is considered a "food desert," meaning that residents in the city lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other items that constitute the full range of a healthy diet. Program members cited distance, travel ability, and prices as the most significant barriers to accessing healthy food.

"It quickly becomes apparent that hunger pervades all other issues," says Erik Heaney '14, from Durham, N.C. "It is hard to get citizens active in other aspects of civic life if they are struggling to feed themselves."

To gather information and better understand the range of options available in Chester, the Fellows visited several fresh food providers in the city. One source, the community garden at Ruth L. Bennett Homes, was established three years ago as a collaboration between Swarthmore's student environmental justice group and the Chester Housing Authority. Yet the directors of the few examples of fresh food provision they found also revealed limitations to the efficacy of the already scarce programs, and the difficulty of attending to them in an environment of many high-priority, community-identified needs.

Chester Community Fellows
Fellows work with Chester residents in the Ruth L. Bennett Homes Community Garden.

"I had been working in Chester for the whole academic year and it wasn't an issue brought to my attention," says Akunna Uka '14, from Mount Vernon, N.Y., "even though it impacts Chester greatly."

The Fellows spent five weeks this summer working at Greener Partner's farm and then another five weeks exploring alternative food models. Members considered the implications of their week's work and shared their lessons at weekly reflections.

"Community assessment through information gathering and sharing is essential to understand everything from how issues get attacked to what would be considered appropriate and welcome by Chester residents," says Assistant Director for Student Programs Debra Kardon-Brown, who hopes the Fellows will be able to continue their work. "The challenge of the program overall is to translate knowledge into understanding, and understanding into appropriate action."

"Serving as a Chester Fellow after my first-year at Swarthmore was instrumental in the molding of my future plans for my next three years at Swarthmore," says Morgan Bartz '14, from Danbury, Ct., who is continuing her work in Chester as a research assistant to the Delaware County Alliance for Environmental Justice. "My work pertaining to environmentalism, Chester, and social action is just beginning."

The Chester Community Fellows Program is a fully supported summer internship program offered to all students through the Swarthmore Foundation (which also supports the Summer Social Action Awards and Swarthmore Foundation Summer Project Grants). The program aims to create a cohort that is diverse in every aspect, including class year. Upcoming information sessions will be held Nov. 11 at noon in the Scheuer Room, Nov. 18 at 11:30 a.m. in the Lang Center, Dec. 1 at 4:30 p.m. in the Black Cultural Center, and Dec. 4 at 10 a.m. in Lang Center. Applications will be available Dec. 5 and due Feb. 1.