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Rural African-American teens face a future with high rates of chronic disease. Combined with limited opportunities for job growth and health care, these factors lead youth to grasp the first opportunity to leave their hometowns and seek employment elsewhere, often landing in low-paying, low-skill service jobs.  A new study at the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention seeks to help engage youth in overcoming these challenges by creating entrepreneurial opportunities through rebuilding local food systems.

The Faith, Farming, and the Future project, recently funded by the National Institutes of Health, will work with four churches in rural Warren County, located in northeastern North Carolina, to form youth action teams to identify critical challenges and opportunities in the local food and agriculture system. Business leaders and youth empowerment experts will coach these teams to develop innovative solutions to  improve healthy food access and physical activity through entrepreneurial efforts. The 2-year project will receive approximately $400,000 to conduct the research.

“We hope that this project will help to identify ways to re-build the local food system through agriculture,” said Molly De Marco, a co-investigator on the study.  “The area was once a thriving farm community, but changes in farming policy, discrimination against black farmers and waning interest from young people to tend their families’ farms have led to a big gap between family farms and youth.”

The focus on rebuilding the local food system is a new approach to addressing health disparities caused by rural poverty. Ironically, rural Americans in agricultural areas often have less access to healthy foods, while available jobs for youth may be limited to fast food restaurants and other low-skill jobs in the service sector.

“It may be a stretch to think we can engage rural youth in a form of employment many have been trying to escape for generations,” said Alice Ammerman, principal investigator of the study, director of HPDP and professor of nutrition at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. “However, addressing the critical social, health and economic issues facing rural youth requires a new way of thinking. The groundswell of interest in local food and environmental sustainability has created new opportunities for many. It seems only fair that these opportunities be extended to the descendants of those who provided the backbone of agriculture early in our country’s history but have too often been denied the benefits.”

The research team will partner with churches to help build on the strong connections these organizations already have in the community. They will also use a community-based participatory research approach to include the youth and their families as partners in developing the project.  Ammerman and De Marco have already formed a partnership with Coley Springs Missionary Baptist church and Rev. William Kearney to build a church garden, which received an enthusiastic response from the community.

“Addressing health disparities without considering the underlying social determinants of health seems doomed to failure,” said Ammerman. “Lecturing youth about what they should eat as an approach to reversing obesity is also an unlikely solution. We think taking this combined approach is an innovative way to approach a major problem facing our youth.”

The project team will begin their work by recruiting youth and adult mentors in the coming months, then building from meetings with those participants for next steps.

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