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Alabama, Mississippi Residents Go Green For Improved Diet, Well-Being Through Harvest For Health

Fresh, home-grown vegetables are becoming more plentiful in counties across Alabama and Mississippi with the expansion of a program designed to increase healthy food options and provide more opportunities for physical activity.

The introduction of the Harvest for Health initiative signifies a major step for participants in the ongoing Chronic Disease & Health Disparities Program at the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB.

The Chronic Disease & Health Disparities Program delivers education outreach activities that focus on cancer survivors and people with heart disease or diabetes who are age 50 and older. The goal includes examining ways to prevent or manage chronic diseases with lifestyle adjustments.

Community Health Advisors, or CHAs, from the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement at the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center already deliver health messages and interact with communities. Now, they are working to recruit participants for the gardening component of Harvest for Health.

Gardening activity will be phased into the program beginning this month. Participation is open to several counties across Alabama and Mississippi. The Alabama counties are Bullock, Calhoun, Dallas, Madison, Marengo, Monroe, Sumter, Talladega and Walker, while the Mississippi counties are Bolivar, Grenada, Humphrey, Panola, Sunflower and Yazoo.

“Gardening seems like a very simple thing, but it is very holistic and affects people in many different ways,” said Jennifer Bail, Ph.D., R.N., assistant professor of nursing at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, who is the project lead on this latest initiative. “It is bringing so many things together. It is helping people to eat healthier, to be more physically active, and it also helps people’s mood.”

Each gardening participant will receive four containers on wheels, which can be used on porches, in yards or even on apartment decks.

Wendy Demark-Wahnefried, Ph.D., R.D., associate director for Cancer Prevention & Control at the O’Neal Cancer Center, stands beside an outdoor garden bed. (contributed)

“We’re trying to make it as easy as possible for people to make these healthier choices,” Bail said.

Participants will be given all the supplies they need and will be getting support from a master gardener from area extension services.

“The special ingredients in this are the master gardeners who will mentor the participants,” Bail said.

Harvest for Health was the brainchild of Wendy Demark-Wahnefried, Ph.D., R.D., associate director for Cancer Prevention & Control at the O’Neal Cancer Center, who started the program with groups of cancer survivors. The current version of the program expands participation to people with other chronic illnesses.

“Dr. Demark-Wahnefried has noticed in her previous studies that the act of gardening does help in those areas,” Bail said. “Even when people say, ‘I really don’t like fruits and vegetables,’ when you’ve grown it yourself in your own garden, not only does it taste better, but you are more apt to eat it because there’s a sense of self-accomplishment.”

The Harvest for Health program has proved successful in increasing fruit and vegetable intake, increasing physical function and providing an opportunity for exercise and physical activity. The goals of promoting healthier diet, encouraging physical activity and improving physical functioning remain the same under the program led by Monica Baskin, Ph.D., associate director for Community Outreach & Engagement at the O’Neal Cancer Center.

Monica Baskin, Ph.D., associate director for Community Outreach & Engagement at the O’Neal Cancer Center. (contributed)

Bail said using the CHA model will help deliver greatest impact to the communities that need it.

“These aren’t things that we are having to create. The CHAs are already there,” Bail said. “I really love the angle of helping to empower people to improve their own health and well-being. This could be a great way to help people make better choices.”

The Harvest for Health program includes a team from several institutions in Alabama and Mississippi, including principal investigator Monica Baskin, Ph.D., Wendy Demark-Wahnefried, Ph.D., R.D., and Claudia Hardy, MPA, from UAB; Jennifer Bail, Ph.D., R.N., from UAH; Rudy Pacumbaba, Ph.D., from Alabama A&M University; David Buys, Ph.D., and Jeff Wilson, Ph.D., from Mississippi State University; and Angela Duck, Ph.D., R.N., from the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

For more information on Harvest for Health, call 205-975-0003 or email [email protected].

This story originally ran in the May 2021 issue of Community Connections, the monthly newsletter of the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement at the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB.

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