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Focus groups provide a forum for sharing thoughts on food access

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Posted: October 28, 2014

At a community center and a convent, at a business development center and a food pantry, and in several other locations across the Northeast, people have been talking very intentionally about food during the past few months. These facilitated conversations, or focus groups, are one of the Consumption Team’s major research activities aimed at understanding people’s experiences accessing healthy food in their communities.
Focus group participants in Baltimore

Focus group participants in Baltimore

This round of focus groups took place from July to October, with two groups conducted in each of the project’s eight study locations. During each of the 60-90 minute facilitated discussions, 4-14 community residents responded to questions about their everyday practices of acquiring food in their communities. They were asked about food availability, their personal food buying practices, including where and when they buy their food, challenges they experience in buying healthy food, and how they view the importance to their communities of improving access to healthy and regionally produced food.

The focus groups that were conducted this summer and fall are the second round of focus groups for this five-year project. The first round was conducted in the project’s first year. This Year-Four round allows the team to gauge changes in perceptions and to identify larger trends facing the study communities. It has also given team members an opportunity to refine their methods.

For example, while some of the Year-One focus groups were segmented by age, the team took a more deliberate approach to segmenting all of the focus groups this year. At each project site, one focus group included mostly seniors on fixed incomes, and the other included mostly parents with children, said Sarah Rocker, a Penn State Rural Sociology doctoral student who helped to coordinate the sixteen focus groups under the guidance of Penn State Professor of Rural Sociology and member of the EFSNE team Clare Hinrichs. "The results we’re going to get as a result of this segmentation strategy should uncover unique challenges based on participants' distinct situations as well as some shared generational perspectives," Rocker said.

And while these results won't be processed for quite some time, the segmentation of focus groups within the locations has already led to some interesting observations, said Kathy Dischner, an Extension Educator with Cornell University and EFSNE team member who conducted four focus groups in Onondaga County, New York. She noticed that the two different age groups voiced very different perceptions of the stores in their communities, and also felt quite differently about the environmental qualities of the stores, like lighting and safety.

Another change to the focus group protocol was the inclusion of Spanish language resources. To capture the increasing ethnic diversity in some of the study locations, focus groups in two sites were conducted entirely in Spanish. Brief pen-and-paper questionnaires administered to all focus group participants were also translated so that Spanish-speaking participants could easily provide the requested basic demographic information.

Recruiting focus group participants, regardless of their native language, fell on the shoulders of the team’s community-based liaisons, each of whom live in the communities where the focus groups took place. Rocker, who supported their efforts, was really struck by the diversity among these people who are so integral to the project's success. For example, in Charleston, WV, the community liaison worked within Extension doing community outreach. In southern Delaware, this role is filled by a food bank employee. And in Pittsburgh, PA, a nun from the local convent and a coffee shop owner were integral in both the recruitment and hosting of this second round of focus groups.

"I think one of the strengths of our project is the relationships that have been established with individuals who represent a diverse range of needs and interests in the communities," Rocker said.

Having facilitated some of the focus groups herself, Rocker also was surprised by how valuable the facilitated conversations were to participants. "I can see how these focus groups have been immediately impactful to participants. People have appreciated getting to express their feelings and discuss these issues together," said Rocker, describing one instance in which she was approached by a native Spanish-speaking participant after a session in Harlem. "She said, 'Gracias, gracias, gracias. Thank you for listening. Thank you for asking. This is so important to us'."

More information about the activities of the Consumption Team is available here.