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UNC research group creates more outdoor opportunities for local communities

Judit Alvarado, community outreach field coordinator for FFORC, poses for a portrait outside of Wilson Library on Nov. 20, 2021. "The goal of FFORC Is to work and partner with communities to help continue the work of food access and physical activity," Alvarado said.

In the past few weeks, UNC’s Food, Fitness and Opportunity Research Collaborative has been partnering with underserved communities in Orange County to get more people outside.

FFORC Community Outreach Field Coordinator and Orange County resident Judit Alvarado said the main goal of the long-term project, called Communities on the Move, is to create more opportunities for people within the community to be outdoors. 

“It was mostly about finding solutions for people to be able to have safe access to walking, biking or exercising,” Alvarado said. “We have learned through this project that it takes time to do partnerships with communities and to build trust.” 

Jessica Colon is a senior at Eno River Academy and a community member who has participated in the project. Colon said her speaking skills and overall confidence have increased as a result of her work with the FFORC.

“One thing that we did was we did a walk audit to see in our neighborhood, what were the things that made it non-walkable,” Colon said. “One of our goals was to create a more walkable community. And last week, we did a neighborhood cleanup and we had 32 bags of garbage by the end of the day.” 

Having been involved in various projects with the FFORC, Alvarado said the research program’s ability to bridge the gap between underserved communities and the University is what makes it so important. 

“I think it is a great way to provide people from many different backgrounds an opportunity to improve both themselves and the communities they serve or live in,” Alvarado said. 

FFORC is a research program within UNC's Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. Research scientist and FFORC lead Molly De Marco said the collaborative does research on low-resource communities to help build on assets related to food security and offer opportunities for more physical activity.

In order to accomplish these goals, the FFORC partners with communities in areas such as Orange County and other counties across the state. Alvarado said the research is conducted with the goal of addressing the communities' needs first and foremost.

“A lot of the research we do is not us coming in and doing studies that we are interested in,” Alvarado said. “It is more about learning what communities need. We focus on trying to find ways to align our research with our communities’ needs and desires.”

Partnering with low-income communities is a crucial aspect of the project, and doing so is often a long process, De Marco said.

“We start out by asking people who are already working in communities to introduce us to people; this way we already have some sort of introduction and are not going into the communities cold,” De Marco said. “Then, we go in and we share what our interests are and ask people if they have similar interests and how our partnership could be beneficial to them.”

Jared Bishop, a graduate research assistant in the Gillings School of Global Public Health, has worked with caregivers of children ages 6 and younger during his time at the FFORC. Bishop said that making sure everyone’s voice holds equal weight is very important when working on these research projects. 

“Even through that work, we were able to listen to the voice of the caregivers and make sure that what we were working to improve was actually addressing the wants and desires that caregivers were saying that they needed and making sure their wants were at the forefront,” Bishop said. 

De Marco said it is also important for people outside the communities that FFORC partners with to understand and care about the work that is being done. 

“We are working to build anti-racism principles into the work that we do,” De Marco said. “It transcends different demographic barriers in that people of all genders and races should be treated with dignity and given the power to determine their own future.” |

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