UC Merced

Despite abundant farms, some in Valley struggle to find fresh food

It might come as a surprise that, in a region where agriculture is so prevalent, many people in the San Joaquin Valley cannot afford fresh, quality produce or live too far from grocery stores, farmers markets and other sources.

A recent study from UC Merced public health professor Susana Ramirez and sociology professor Zulema Valdez – published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease – focuses on these so-called “food deserts.”

The study is part of a three-year collaboration to prevent chronic disease – a project led by the Merced County Department of Public Health, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and involving more than 40 local organizations. Ramirez surveyed local residents’ behaviors and perceptions of health and safety in the community.

Ramirez said she expected to find that people did not eat more fruits and vegetables primarily because there were not enough grocery stores near their homes. But in reality, many people who do live near grocery stores simply can’t afford the fruits and vegetables there.

The issue of affordability was a major factor that defined “access” in Ramirez’s study.

“Researchers and advocates usually think of ‘access’ in terms of physical proximity to grocery stores,” Ramirez said. “But our study showed that cost was actually a huge barrier to have a having a better diet.”

Another finding from the work was that people simply didn’t have access to the information they needed to be healthy. Ramirez said there is a major lack of health information in the Merced community – surprising, given that we live in the information age – and this was an issue that many people identified as critical for being healthy.

In response to this concern, her team is working to identify channels for disseminating health information and will work to provide local, relevant and useful health information to the community. The researchers have also learned there is a need to raise awareness about the programs offered by organizations across the community to prevent chronic disease.

Ramirez led a team of more than 25 UC Merced undergraduate students and three graduate students in conducting the surveys – a benefit both to her as a researcher and to the students themselves.

“The students have been tremendously helpful in connecting with community residents, going out all over to interview residents about their experiences and health challenges,” Ramirez said. “The fact that so many of our students come from this community and look like the community has really helped us to build a positive relationship for future research partnerships.”

Ramirez said the program has been dubbed “All In for Health – Merced County,” and the Department of Public Health plans to roll out the branding for the initiative over the next year.

“Currently, Merced County suffers from disproportionately high rates of preventable chronic disease and social and behavioral risk factors for disease, including obesity, poor diet and low physical activity,” Ramirez said. “The overall goal of the project is to make it easier for local residents to eat more fruits and vegetables and get more physical activity.”

Hundreds of coders compete in second annual hackathon

Computer enthusiasts gathered at UC Merced earlier this month for the second annual HackMerced competition.

Nearly 400 high school and university students from all over the world, in more than 40 teams, vyed for bragging rights and $7,250 in prizes. The goal? Design, create and present a new and innovative app in under 36 hours.

UC Merced students Gregory Mellos, Ryan Rivas, Patricia Kaye Mendoza and Robert Porcella took home first place for Triggerbot, a twitterbot that analyzes the offensiveness of a photo. UC Merced students Miguel Hernandez and Maxime Moison were awarded second place for Cat-Fé, an app that allows users to place a mobile order for food and drinks from the Lantern.

The HackMerced student group partners with Major League Hacking, a corporation whose goal is to inspire students to be creative and innovative with technology.

Students involved with HackMerced bring leadership and experience from other clubs on campus, such as the Association for Computing Machinery, Business Society, Drone Research Society and Engineering Vanguard.

UC Merced Connect is a collection of news items written by the University Communications staff. To contact them, email communications@ucmerced.edu.