An oasis in the food desert


Published: Sunday, March 24, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 22, 2013 at 1:48 p.m.

For Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell, the "aha" moment came a few years ago when she was meeting with University of Florida professor Dr. Nancy Hardt.

Hardt had a map showing that the area that includes the Linton Oaks neighborhood had the county's highest concentration of health problems such as low birth weights. Darnell pulled out her own map showing that the same area had the highest crime rates in the county.

The idea that the county's greatest social and health problems were concentrated in one area was the impetus behind SWAG, or the Southwest Advocacy Group. The SWAG Family Resource Center opened last year in Linton Oaks to provide tutoring, GED classes and other programs to area residents and help connect them to jobs and social services.

The county health department is planning to operate a medical and dental clinic across from the center. In the meantime, efforts are under way to help change the diets and behaviors that contribute to the area's poor health outcomes.

The SWAG center's playground shows the innovative and comprehensive approach to the issue. The playground is the neighborhood's first and was built in a lot that used to be filled with broken glass and other trash.

It doesn't have the traditional slides and swings, but rather has equipment meant to build strength and improve balance. There's even playground versions of rowing and elliptical machines.

On my visit there last week, the site was strewn with empty Pepsi bottles and Cheetos bags. It's a challenge to teach healthy habits to kids when cheap junk food can be bought at the convenience store across the street.

But the store's owner is also trying to be part of the solution. The store recently began selling locally grown produce due to the efforts of two UF graduate students, Darryl Pastor and Martin Wegman.

Using an American Medical Association Foundation grant, the duo is working to address the area's status as a food desert. The term describes places where a lack of transportation and grocery stores means residents have little access to fresh and healthy foods.

The duo's efforts, dubbed the SWAG Oasis project, include community gardens at the center, cooking demonstrations and a walking group. Instead of a stuffy class, a potluck is being held this week where residents can eat good food, help expand the gardens and learn about the program.

Wegman and Pastor want to empower area residents, rather than just lecturing them. Their program is about giving residents choices along with information, and believing that will lead to the healthier option being chosen.

They hope that they're creating something that will live beyond the grant and be able to be applied to other parts of the county, both urban and rural.

They're just two of many people working to improve life in an area of Alachua County that has its greatest poverty, yet is located a short drive from some of its greatest wealth. It's the kind of thing that makes you embarrassed for the county and proud of its people at the same time.

Nathan Crabbe can be reached at nathan.crabbe@gvillesun.com or 374-5075.

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