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Posted on April 22, 2014

Vegetables on wooden table. Students in the Master of Social Work program are helping the Republic Food Enterprise Center (RFEC) reach out to area farmers with the goal of making nutritious food more readily available to residents of southwestern Pennsylvania.

Established by the Fayette County Community Action Agency Inc., the RFEC supports enterprises that focus on providing locally grown food.

Last fall students in the Research, Policy and Rural Social Work Practice course, taught by Dr. Pamela Twiss, created a growers’ interest survey for the RFEC. In January, the survey was mailed to local farmers and made available electronically.

The current semester’s class is following up with a second mailing, fielding responses, and planning a series of follow-ups and meetings with area farmers. One important goal is to develop retail outlets within “food deserts” — communities that lack access to fresh, nutritious food — throughout the region.

The MSW program at Cal U focuses on serving local populations and at-risk people, especially in rural environments.

First-year MSW students are required to perform 240 hours of community service as part of their field practicum. Second-year students devote 360 hours to community service.

Southwestern Pennsylvania has many communities, like California Borough, that lack ready access to supermarkets and other sources of fresh produce. Low-income families in those areas find it especially difficult to obtain nutritious food. 

“What our students are doing is helping the RFEC identify those farmers who are willing to partner with them and to supply fruits and vegetables to the enterprise center,” Twiss said.

“Our students are really interested in this from a social work angle, because of their concern about food deserts, providing employment and helping to rebuild the local food network.”

A number of students in the program were raised in rural areas or have experience with farming.

“This project absolutely hits home with me,” said Paul Paxton ’10, who grew up on a farm in Perry County, Ohio. “We want the people to have accessible and affordable food — a pound of bananas as opposed to a bag of doughnuts.”

The Cal U students got involved when the research subcommittee of the Fayette County Human Resources Council asked MSW program director Dr. Norma Thomas, a committee member, for assistance.

“It was a great opportunity to use our students’ skills and talents to give back to the community,” Thomas said. “The field practicum component of the program requires them to integrate theory into practice. This work with the RFEC makes learning real.”

Students in the MSW program also volunteer regularly at Center in the Woods, participate in events such as Take Back the Night, and assist community-based agencies such as Fayette County Friends of Animals and local women’s shelters.

“Students wouldn’t be in this major if they didn’t want to help people in general,” Paxton said. “Everyone needs help, and this is a good way to impact the community in a positive way.

“I think it’s a real example of meeting people where they’re at.”