A New Way to Reach the Detroit Community?

Author: Shakina Russell

On December 5, 2012, I had the opportunity to participate in a Telephone Town Hall Meeting held by Fair Food Network’s Strengthening Detroit Voices project. Fair Food Network (FFN) is a nationally-recognized nonprofit organization that “works at the intersection of food systems, sustainability, and social equity to guarantee access to health, fresh, and sustainably-grown food for all, particularly in underserved communities.”

Strengthening Detroit Voices works with community organizations, legislative leaders, and food systems organizations to advocate for policy changes that simultaneously shrink food deserts and expand access to healthy food in the Detroit area.

I expected a typical town hall meeting – a modest gathering of concerned citizens in a large room in downtown Detroit; key leaders in food sustainability and FFN staff on a panel would relay the goals that they are trying to accomplish; and then the concerned citizens would have an opportunity to ask their questions…. What I experienced at the Telephone Town Hall was something totally different.

The meeting was held in the downtown Detroit offices of the United Way for Southeastern Michigan, but there was no gathering of concerned citizens – only support staff, telephones, and computers. Fair Food Network was reaching out in a new way to connect with low-income families concerned about accessing healthy food in their community. Single parents often don’t have anyone to watch their children while they go to a meeting to express their concerns and senior citizens no longer have the energy or means to travel. Instead of requiring citizens to leave their homes, FFN went to them!

Detroit consists of largely underserved households: according to the 2011 US Census, more than 31% of families reported an income beneath the poverty level, more than 34% receive governmental food assistance, and about 36% of families consist of single parent households. Citizens have trouble getting from one location to another due to the fragmented public transportation system. These citizens make up a large portion of the city’s population and these are the people the Strengthening Detroit Voices want to hear from.

The Telephone Town Hall uses modern technology to create an interactive virtual town hall meeting. FFN was able to reach 47,751 Detroit citizens in their target population via a phone call that invited them to participate in the meeting. Of that number, 11,100 people actually answered the invitation phone call, and 7,485 accepted the invitation and participated in meeting. Without having to leave their homes, thousands of Detroiters were able to utilize this new technology to take part in a discussion about access and affordability of healthy food options within their community and to respond to poll questions that provided important data for future action. Through the Telephone Town Hall, citizens had the opportunity to have their voices heard regarding the high prices that small convenience stores charge for healthy options, the poor quality of local food alternatives, and the scarcity of full-service groceries within the city.

FFN plans to continue using this mode of raising awareness by conducting a second Telephone Town Hall regarding its Double-Up Food Bucks program. Through this program, people can use their SNAP benefits to shop for food at a farmers’ market and have the amount of money that they spend matched to be used on Michigan-grown fruits and vegetables to encourage healthier eating. Poll results from the first Telephone Town Hall showed that only 29% of callers were aware of DUFB, so FFN has a strong interest in increasing the visibility of this healthy food initiative.

By meeting Detroiters in their own homes using Telephone Town Hall technology, FFN was able to reach more people than it would have with a traditional town hall meeting. It is important that nonprofits do all they can to get sufficient feedback from the underserved communities they are trying to help. Telephone Town Halls go a long way toward allowing the collective voices of citizens to be heard. Strengthening Detroit Voices’ Telephone Town Hall broadened the knowledge of thousands of listeners regarding healthy food options and policy issues surrounding Detroit’s food systems with just one phone call. In order to better help underserved populations, it is imperative that organizations continue to think of new and creative ways to maximize outreach to those who need it most. Telephone Town Halls are just one new and creative way to do just that. What’s next?

Guest Blogger Shakina Russell is an MPH and MHSA student at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. This editorial addresses the need for innovative methodologies to extend reach to underserved populations.