The power of community engagement in systems change work

Community Engagement 

September 15, 2022

Throughout these last two years, authentically engaging community members has been a core component of all HCCC project teams and their work. Each team has intentionally collaborated with residents to address health inequities in their communities, whether it be by consulting local advocates, creating new leadership pathways or working on formalizing policies to shift decision-making power into the hands of the community.

In Dougherty County, Georgia, residents have experienced a complex history of isolation, segregation and a plethora of natural disasters. Together, these factors have resulted in high rates of food insecurity for county residents and the declining health of certain groups, like senior citizens, to go unchecked for years. However, through the Dougherty Fresh Initiative, a group of dedicated partners have been able to adequately meet food needs, while also engaging members of the community in a newfound way. 

Members of the project team have partnered with local farmers to increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Organizations like the local parks and recreation department not only provide these foods, but they’ve also engaged in activities like nutrition education and gardening and cooking workshops to equip local residents with knowledge and skills around the foods they are growing or eating. 

“We started doing registrations to keep track of who we are engaging with and sending out recipe cards and things like that,” project team lead Fredando Jackson said. “So that personal connection really made people more comfortable to tell their friends and for more people in those communities to come out.” 

The project team in Wilkes County, North Carolina took a slightly different approach to engaging their community. The team utilized a human-centered design framework to learn from people impacted by food insecurity and create prototype projects to address it. The framework enabled their project team to build on the existing skills and knowledge of the community and encouraged leadership among residents. 

“One member became a community champion of the mobile food market at the subsidized housing complex where he lives,” project team lead Heather Murphy said. “He also leveraged his knowledge to become a spokesperson for improved accessibility and safety with town leadership.”

According to Heather, their approach to community engagement emphasized the value of empathetic interviewing, which strengthened the community’s ability to design solutions with people, not simply for people. Together, they’ve expanded their mobile food market, launched a community garden and tested food lockers in remote locations for families to access free produce.

Up north in Orange County, New York, the Orange County Department of Health has worked to create a system to increase screening and referral for food insecurity in the health care setting. The Challenge project is also utilizing a Prescription for Produce voucher program to link residents who are experiencing food insecurity with local farmers’ markets. To improve these programs and better tailor them to their community, the team has used focus groups as a strategy to consult with their community members. 

“We have been able to hear our community members speak about important issues surrounding food security,” project team lead Meg Oakes said. “Community members have shared their thoughts on the current food programs in the County including both the benefits of programs as well as some barriers to linking to programs.”

The team has also used surveys to gain insight from community members on better ways for health care settings to provide screening and referrals for food insecurity.

While the grant is ending for these teams and the rest of our grantees, their work is far from over. We know that these dedicated groups will continue to harness the power of their community to change systems and advance health equity. We can’t wait to see the creative ways they continue to engage their communities in the future.