In the state of Arizona, where at least 10% of households are living with food insecurity, diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death. Taking the classroom to the community, Eliza Short and Jayati Sharma, students in the University of Arizona College of Agriculture, Life and Environmental Sciences, are partnering with the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona to establish a nutrition-based diabetes treatment program to help those most at risk.
Communities living with food insecurity, on average, face 2-3 times the prevalence of food related diseases, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. Food and Resources Expanded to Support Health (FRESH-2) is a collaborative project designed to produce a therapeutic food box to support food bank clients managing diabetes.
“As an undergraduate student, it’s incredible to see that my college and the School of Nutritional Sciences and Wellness are willing to invest in community-based work,” said Sharma, an undergraduate pursuing a dual degree in public health and molecular and cellular biology. “It’s great to see how scalable it is and the long-term impact of our work.”
The Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona serves five counties and more than 190,000 households, not including their senior programs or snack programs for the Boys and Girls Club of Southern Arizona.
“When we talk about who these people are, they’re not just faceless people. They are people who really are vulnerable and who really do deserve the best that we can give,” said Rhonda Gonzalez, Director of Health Initiatives at the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona.
“Throughout this whole project, we’ve been really focused on sustainability,” said Short, a PhD student in nutritional sciences. “We’re really trying to keep that central in our minds throughout the entire process and stages of development.”
The FRESH-2 Project specifically aims to enhance the food bank’s existing emergency food boxes. Supplied by the USDA, The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) provides a 3-4 day supply of food for those in need, including staples such as canned vegetables, canned fruit, pasta, spaghetti sauce, legumes, and cereal.
“It’s good staple food, but it is pretty heavy in carbohydrates. Not that that’s a problem, but people who have diabetes, for instance, struggle with getting the right kinds of carbohydrates,” explained Melanie Hingle, associate professor in the School of Nutritional Sciences and Wellness. “This is a fine starting point, but we’re trying to figure out how can we tweak it to make it better.”
As part of the first two phases of the project, Short and Sharma interviewed more than 200 food bank clients to evaluate overall diet quality and gather feedback on how clients currently use TEFAP foods. With support from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona, the project is now developing a therapeutic food box to be test-piloted this fall.
“If we were going to put a price tag on it, we couldn’t afford it,” Gonzalez said. “It’s a tremendous asset. We could not do this without the work of these students.”