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Field Education Office Professional Development Workshop

BSW Cording & MSW Hooding

mobilemarketWhen the local foods movement started gaining momentum, it caught the attention of Dr. Patricia Sharpe. She wondered how the growing interest in community gardening and farmers’ markets might affect lower-income populations. Would the push for local produce make healthy food more accessible for everyone? Dr. Sharpe was determined to find out, and her background in public health made her uniquely suited for researching the issues of food access and behaviors.


“It’s tragic to me that not everybody in the United States has the ability to feed their families nutritious food,” says Dr. Sharpe, and her current research project seeks to identify the obstacles that impede healthy eating. “Food choices are complex,” she explains, and “people do the best they can with what they know.” Her project, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health through 2017, aims to give a platform to lower-income South Carolinians for expressing their concerns about the access and affordability of healthy food. She’s chosen two communities for her research: one in the Upstate and another in the Pee Dee region. These two communities share a similar level of poverty and distance to food retailers.

Dr. Sharpe refers to the project as “community-engaged research,” emphasizing the trust that must be cultivated between researchers and participants. Her team will conduct interviews and hold focus groups with community leaders and residents. This mode of research requires good rapport. In order to be successful, there must be a “level of trust between the researcher and the community.” The study has field offices in both communities that are staffed primarily with local professionals. Having local staff is incredibly beneficial to the project. The field office staff know their hometown communities and are better able to build relationships and gain the trust of the study’s participants.

Dr. Sharpe is grateful for her partnerships with local organizations that are “open to learning the strengths and weaknesses of their programs.” Dr. Sharpe is continually pleased by each community’s generosity, noting that they are “willing to trust the researcher and […] to share information that’s essential to carrying out the study.”

The project combines community engagement with technology. The research team includes two geographers who are training the field office staff to collect Global Positioning System data. The data will be used to create a map of places to buy food, including everything from grocery stores to fast-food establishments. The goal is to accurately characterize the food environment in these lower-income neighborhoods. Dr. Sharpe notes that there are barriers to getting to the grocery store in these communities. About half of the community residents do not have their own means of transportation for grocery shopping, something that others take for granted.

“People have a right to be able to feed their families,” says Dr. Sharpe. Access to nutritious food “is a health issue, but it’s also a social justice issue.” She hopes the project will bring national attention to the limited access to healthy food in lower-income areas. “Having access to safe, nutritious, and affordable food is a human right,” claims Dr. Sharpe, and her project aims to pinpoint the barriers that deny that right and evaluate potential community-based solutions.

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