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NCDHHS initiative to support agricultural workers' technology access receives $6 million

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Animals roam a field at the 1870 Farm on Saturday, Feb. 11, 2023. 

A proposed initiative from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services was given a five-year, $6 million award to improve digital inclusion for agricultural workers in the state.

The department announced on Sept. 27 that its Office of Rural Health would receive the award from the National Institutes of Health. 

The office is collaborating with East Carolina University and N.C. State University on the initiative, which focuses on digital health services and emergency communication. 

The funding came from the NIH’s Common Fund Community Partnerships to Advance Science for Society program to help community organizations achieve health research. In the past five years, the program has distributed 26 awards totaling $171 million to community organizations.

Natalie Rivera, the project's manager, said the initiative has two overall goals — improve telehealth opportunities and create accessible broadband services for agricultural workers.

“Essentially the purpose is to really transform agriculture workers' access to affordable, reliable internet in order to enhance telehealth models and reduce health disparities,” she said.

Rivera said her team plans to establish a health equity research advisory board of state and national partners and an Agricultural Workers Advisory Board.

She said her team will be providing technology to allow members of the Agricultural Workers Advisory Board to participate regularly in virtual meetings.

Rivera said that there will also be listening sessions that will allow those working on the project to hear from community members.

In the third year of the project, Rivera said that her team will begin interventions to address issues found during the meetings and community feedback of the first two years.

“We really want to make sure [agricultural] workers are included throughout the process and they have a say in these interventions,” she said.

The N.C. Farmworker Health Program – which is part of the NCDHHS' Office of Rural Health and works to provide health care to farmworkers – will help spearhead the project by maintaining relationships with agricultural community partners and families. 

Rivera said that the success of the NCFHP program likely stood out to the NIH in the digital equity initiative's application. She said the NCDHHS' Internet Connectivity Project, which began during the COVID-19 pandemic, also started work that will be continued in the new initiative.

This project worked to help farmworkers access internet connectivity and digital literacy models. 

“We knew that internet connectivity was important, but during COVID-19, it was like, ‘No, this is an essential utility that farmworkers and agricultural workers need to access, in order to have proper health access,'” she said. 

Joseph Lee, a professor of Health Education and Promotion at ECU, said that since 2008, all of the proposed initiative's partners have done a series of small projects to help close the digital divide in the state.

Lee said that having internet access is important because it can help workers who may be moving around a lot communicate with their families. He also said that having these resources allows workers to stay healthy.

“I think what's exciting about this project is that we're, for the first time, really gonna have some resources and some momentum of a coalition of folks to try and help solve some of the problems that have been there,” he said.

Catherine LePrevost, an associate extension professor at N.C. State, said that the university will be helping with community engagement and leading the statistical analysis of the research project aspect of the initiative.

LePrevost said that those working on the initiative are trying to collaborate with organizations that are already established in agricultural communities. She said that this will help to ensure that they are able to connect with workers.

“Partnership at multiple levels is really important here,” she said.

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