Member Spotlight: Using Data to Advance Food Policy

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Barb LaClair is a consultant for local food policy councils in Kansas. She has years of experience working on hunger and food insecurity issues throughout the state. Many rural Kansans have a difficult time accessing healthy foods, often times relying on food provided by convenience stores. In her work, LaClair is helping food policy councils gather data for assessment work so they can begin to address food insecurity issues at the community level. The food councils’ goals are to not only assess food insecurity issues, but to improve participation in food nutrition assistance programs, strengthen food assistance networks, and encourage community-level action to fight food insecurity.

Can you describe how you began working on food policy issues in Kansas?

We have about a dozen relatively new local food policy councils in Kansas. I have had a personal interest in food systems and food policy for a long time so this was a real opportunity for me to transition into this consulting role to help these new food policy councils with their food system assessment work.

Many of them don’t have a lot of data handling capacity – it can be a little bit intimidating. I have been working with them to gather secondary data from a lot of different sources and then put that together in some kind of cohesive report that they can use as a starting point in their work. 

What’s driven the growth of these new food policy councils?

This has evolved just in the last 2 years. We just have a lot of new groups that are getting their legs under them and starting. They needed a little technical assistance to get going. We’ve had generous funding on the table and that always helps. The Kansas Health Foundation has backed all of this. They have been encouraging communities to think about what they can do at the community level to promote health and healthier behavior. The food policy council funding was a piece of that. So that’s been a tremendous help. But I also think in public health there’s been an evolving recognition that the environments we live in really are important and make a huge difference in how healthy our populations are. So what we can do in terms of reshaping environments to be more supportive of good decisions and healthy behaviors is a real interest for a lot of folks.


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What are the biggest health issues currently impacting the lives of Kansans?

There are several things. Our obesity rate is now 7th highest in the nation. Where obesity rates have started to decline in some places, they have not in Kansas. Also, we do have some real access issues. We have a food insecurity rate that has stayed high while they’ve started to drop in other places, our poverty rates have stayed high, we have some economic challenges that I think are making it difficult for a lot of families. And we have some counties that do not have single grocery store. Rural Kansas definitely has access issues and we have access issues in parts of our cities. I live in Topeka and we certainly have areas where access to grocery stores is not adequate now.


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What do people do when they do not have access to grocery stores?

For those things like bread, milk, convenience stores or dollar stores are a place people can usually get those, but the rest of the food that’s there is not healthy a lot of times. Or they drive very long distances to get to the grocery store. I think farmers markets are growing in Kansas. It varies across the state in terms of interest in locally grown or produced food. Our production of local foods is relatively small, we’re primarily conventional commodity crop farmers.In some places like Lawrence, KC, and NE Kansas I’d say there is more support [for farmers’ markets]. Some accept SNAP, we’re making progress. A lot of rural Kansas is simply about getting access to any food.

How have you used Community Commons?

I use it on a daily basis. It has been tremendously helpful to me. A lot of the data, not all, in pulling together these assessments is available quickly and easily and a nice format through the Community Commons reporting system. I love the mapping feature, I have some rudimentary mapping skills, but on Community Commons I get a nice looking map for what I want. Although I know where all those primary data sources are and I could go pull them from the Census, it just saves me a lot of time by being able to look at a quick report from Community Commons. Every chance I get I encourage people to use Community Commons, I think it is user friendly, I think it is full of tremendously valuable information.

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