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Photovoice as a Tool for Community Engagement

By: Victoria Brown

The Photovoice medium, which some refer to as a form of “citizen science,” is an emerging tool being put to good use by food policy councils, government agencies and, most importantly, citizens around the globe. By using the power of photography, community members observe and document the specific food system dynamics in their own neighborhoods. Discussion groups review and reflect upon the photograph, and sometimes the previously unheard “voices” that are channeled through the photographs direct and inspire new policies and goals.

In the Spanish communities of Los Rosales and San Cristobal in Madrid, Photovoice Villaverde worked with the European initiative Heart Healthy Hoods to bring together 24 residents to take photos of their food environments. The residents discussed the photographs in group sessions and used what they learned to create policy recommendations that included improving nutrition labels, improving food hygiene and food handling, reactivating traditional local markets, providing legal status to street vendors, and offering healthier options in workplace vending machines. What’s most valuable about these policy recommendations is that they were developed by residents in the community.

Holyoke, Massachusetts, sees a 30 to 40 percent unemployment rate at any given time. Sixty percent of city residents are on food stamps, and 70 percent of school-aged children receive reduced price or free breakfast and lunch at school. Fresh, healthy food is difficult to access and unaffordable. The Holyoke Food and Fitness Policy Council (HFFPC) strives to improve the health and wellness of residents through community-drive solutions. Hector Figarella, project director for HFFPC talks about the importance of involving the local community: “We want the community to continue to have ownership …their input and participation are crucial to the success.”

To address these issues, the Holyoke Food and Fitness Policy Council (HFFPC) collaborated with young residents on a Photovoice project to demonstrate the value in a strong and healthy farm to school program. The youth worked with Nuestras Raices to document in pictures the journey of their food from the farm to their school. Presenting their study to the school board, they asked to be considered partners in school food decisions in the future. Following the meeting, the school board agreed to create the intergenerational School Food Task Force to encourage dialogue amongst all the stakeholders in school food quality.

Beginning in 2014, a five-year government funded grant created Voices for Food in 24 communities across six states: Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota. “Ultimately, the focus of the grant is to develop and implement sustainable solutions that will increase availability and access to healthy food choices in these rural communities,” says Becky Henne, a coordinator at Michigan State University Extension Services. The grant has a goal to development a food council in each of the 24 communities. Additionally, the grant provides funding for youth to use Photovoice to document their perspectives on issues of food and health access to be shared with local food councils..

“This approach is different because it involves stakeholders from the community,” explains Henne. “Opportunities to increase food access are determined through work with residents and food councils of rural communities, to find out what they see as possible solutions.” One of the changes implemented due to the results of the Photovoice is the creation of a new model for food pantries that allow families to choose their own food items, rather than receiving pre-decided food portions.

In 2011 the Adams County [Pennsylvania] Food Policy Council created Healthy Choices, an initiative that brought together low-income families from across Adams County and offered cooking lessons, gardening classes and a $40 per month voucher for the county farmers market. The initiative focused on families who fell into the “food gap:” they didn’t qualify for food stamps but still couldn’t afford to feed their families healthy, nutritious meals. A key component of the 2012 Healthy Choices cohort was a Photovoice that documented the families’ experiences of the challenges of accessing, cooking, and consuming healthy foods. The images they took included pictures of themselves going grocery shopping, looking at low prices at big box stores, or displaying packages of ramen noodles. These Photovoices became a key tool for the research of Amy Dailey, a Gettysburg professor whose work focused on food access and insecurity. “The purpose of this research…[is to] delve into the issues with food we have in our community. What are those access issues? What are some of those things we can aim to make some change with?” The Photovoice helped Dailey to answer some of these questions for Adams County.

Photography is a powerful tool for allowing underrepresented or unheard groups of citizens to tell about their environments and experiences. For food systems reform and policy councils, Photovoices can play an important role in involving local residents in larger policy and system decisions.

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