UB researcher pursues connection between access to fruit and veggies and good health

UB researching healthy foods.

BY CHARLOTTE HSU republished from UBNow

Release date: November 6, 2019

Growing up in a lower-income household, Kelseanna Hollis-Hansen remembers most of her dinners coming from the corner store, including lots of convenience foods and few fruits and vegetables. That changed in her older teen years when her mother’s employment situation improved, but fueled Hollis-Hansen’s interest in the effects of healthy eating and health. Today, as a PhD candidate in community health and health behavior in the University at Buffalo’s School of Public Health and Health Professions, she focuses her research on mobile produce markets, farmers markets and grocery stores, and how they impact produce consumption in under-resourced neighborhoods. In October, she published findings in a special issue of the journal Translational Behavioral Medicine that showed introducing mobile and farmers markets in low-income communities helped boost fruit and veggie consumption; but the same wasn’t necessarily true when new supermarkets opened. Hollis-Hansen is also a graduate research assistant in the Department of Pediatrics in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB. In addition to her work at UB, she spent time evaluating SNAP (food stamps) programs at Feeding Texas, and during an internship, worked on federal programs aimed at increasing healthy eating in school-based programs.

What drew you to research this area?

I have always been interested in food and food access: I grew up with little access to healthy foods myself, and my parents predominantly shopped at corner stores. That was due to financial scarcity but also time scarcity. I’d get my breakfast from a corner store, and oftentimes dinner too. My mom was able to work extremely hard and bring us out of that experience. My mom had never gotten the opportunity to pursue higher education, but was able to become successful in business, which allowed me to pursue an education. Doing that taught me so much more about healthier eating and access to food.

Tell me more about your research findings.

Observational research on introducing new food retailers is pretty mixed: Some show that introducing any kind of new food retailer will increase fruit and veggie or healthier food consumption, but most of them say it doesn’t actually happen when talking about supermarkets specifically. The surprising thing was the overwhelming benefit of mobile markets and farmers markets.

How does having access to these items impact behavior?

Virtually every farmer’s market accepts Double Up Food Bucks (which doubles the value of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — SNAP — benefits or food stamps). So, from an access perspective, having programs like that increase the purchasing and the purchasing then increases consumption of fruits and vegetables. The research studies have shown it is effective.

Do we know if that actually makes people healthier?

We haven’t (studied) if where a farmer’s market or a mobile market has been introduced that we’ve seen decreased rates of cancer — that’s never happened. But we know the other piece: that consuming more fruit and vegetables is related to positive health development. We know from observational and experimental research

What comes next for your research?

I will be looking at how experiences of the built environment or the area that you grow up and live in and things like poverty, crime and experiences like physical segregation or destruction of neighborhoods are related to health outcomes, and whether that’s mediated or accounted for by physiological changes or stress hormone changes. The other thing I want to do is continue to do retail interventions, like studies increasing access to fruit and creating retailing interventions in the supermarket to encourage more consumption of fruit and vegetables.

Do you plan to bring that research back to Buffalo?

I’ve worked in every part of Buffalo. When I was younger, I moved almost every year: Northtowns, Southtowns, and in the city in North Buffalo. I’m done with my PhD, still here for a few months, then headed to UT Austin where I’ll be doing a post-doc fellowship. I hope to eventually come back here, but I want to go to Texas to gain some of those skills.

global goals.

Sustainable Development Goals:

13. Climate action: Taking steps to combat climate change and its impacts 

15. Life on land: Managing forests and terrestrial ecosystems, while combating desertification, land degradation and biodiversity loss in a sustainable way