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Northwest Region Tackles Poverty and Health Disparities

Minnesota is at the center
of four ecological provinces.
Thirteen staff members joined Family Development leadership at the Northwest Regional Visit on August 12 at the Becker County Extension Office in Detroit Lakes. The visit featured great conversations about the region’s grand challenges, including the challenges of living in poverty and related issues of lack of access to healthy foods (food deserts) and few safe places for physical activity. Attendees noted that while the region is rich in natural resources — with four biomes offering the makings for economic growth and recreation — these resources are not translating to local economic benefits or opportunities for healthy activities for low-income families.

The Northwest Region features prairie and grasslands, lakes, forests, and farms. However, behind the beautiful lakes and countryside lie counties with the highest rates of poverty and chronic health issues. For example, Mahnomen County has 20–26.4 percent of families living in poverty, the highest rate in Minnesota. The Northwest Region also has the highest percentage of household recipients receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) dollars in Minnesota.

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Staff noted how dealing with families and individuals with complex health issues makes some FD work more difficult. Drug abuse, low birth weight babies, babies born to teens, mental health issues, and chronic physical disabilities are all prevalent in the region. In light of these issues, healthy eating and obesity prevention are not top priorities for families.

Staff noted that the complex nature of problems facing Northwest Region families sometimes made it difficult to meet FD goals for implementing evidence-based programs. One struggle is to recruit and retain a minimum number of participants for multiple class sessions. Another struggle, which the Northwest shares with the Southwest, is the lack of evidence-based curriculum for working with people with disabilities, those with mental health issues, or those in recovery centers. For these audiences, there is a need for basic skills.

Staff talked about extreme difficulties in recruiting and retaining participants living in a constant state of crisis that hamper their ability to regularly attend classes. Meeting attendees also said paperwork issued to participants needs to be relevant to their lifestyle. For example, FD forms ask participants what they eat at home, but some participants rarely eat at home, or they are in recovery centers where they don’t have a say about what they eat.

Staff also noted the inherent difficulty of doing policy, system, and environmental (PSE) work that is explicitly connected to low-income community issues.

Despite these challenges, the Northwest Region offers opportunities for partnership and investment. For example, one of the SNAP-Ed Community Partnership Funding subcontracts will allow FD educators to broaden their reach to SNAP-eligible families. The Northwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (NW RSDP) will convene and host conversations linking farmers market managers and vendors and community garden champions to SNAP-eligible households, the emergency food system, public health, and health care providers. These conversations also will include ideas from Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP) representatives. For more on how NW RSDP and FD are working together, see Noelle Harden's article in this issue of Family Matters.

Family Development has a core of passionate staff who are ready to take on these challenges:
  • 1 Health and Nutrition Extension educator
  • 1 Family Resiliency Extension educator
  • 1 SNAP-Ed regional coordinator
  • 9 SNAP-Ed educators
  • 1 technical consultant for Ojibwe curriculum projects

However, given the great disparities in the region, they can't do this work alone. Those in attendance challenged FD leadership to reflect on how the center supports its staff. Staff know that equality is not equity, i.e., a one-size program does not fit all.

Image credit: CommunityView Collaboration™

But meeting attendees said that current FD programs and protocols make it hard to live this out in the workplace. How do we better support staff working with our most under-resourced communities in a region with the highest poverty and health disparity issues? Recent discussions have shed light on one upcoming opportunity: to designate a SNAP-Ed pilot project site in the Northwest Region. But meeting attendees stressed that more must be done to allow staff to meet the special needs of families in the Northwest Region.

Many of our partners and our Northwest Region staff are “living out” this region’s issues themselves. They are experiencing high levels of stress as they try to reach the families with the highest poverty and highest rates of chronic health issues in Minnesota. Working in a stressful climate takes its toll on staff’s physical and mental health. All of us in FD need to be aware of secondary trauma as it affects us, as well as our partners and the families we serve.

Staff at the Northwest Regional Visit also challenged FD leadership to think about how regulations and accountability mechanisms can be barriers to doing engaged work with under-resourced families.

So… what are some successful practices that you have had in working with low-income families? Remember that Family Development remains committed to serving the most under-resourced families and has a responsibility to deepen its work with them. Together, we can help meet that challenge.

Mary Marczak, Director of Urban Family Development and Evaluation
Michael Brott, Communications Manager
Heather Lee, Educational Resource Development and Support Manager

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