As a native North Carolinian, there are a few things that come to mind as quintessentially Southern. At the top of this list is barbecue. The smell of hickory chips, the taste of tangy vinegar, and the social ritual of the pig pickin’ are, for many, cornerstones of a place-based identity.
Unfortunately, our cultural appreciation for authentic barbecue underscores a fundamental tension between the strength of Southern identity and the quality of our health. Alongside a regional cuisine typified by rich comfort foods, the South has the highest percent of obese adults. Relative to other U.S. regions, the 17 states that comprise the US Census region also have a lower overall life expectancy, stronger negative associations between poverty and healthy food access, and a higher prevalence of cardiovascular disease and stroke.1 These statistics are even more alarming given that the region also has the highest percentage of uninsured non-elderly adults and, of the entire region, only Arkansas and Louisiana have expanded Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act.2
But the twin components of culture and health don’t have to be at odds. The question is, how do we leverage our assets to tackle our problems? And what is the role of Planning in the context of Southern health promotion? Graduate Research and Intervention in the South, or GRITS, is a student organization established 2 years ago by Christina Galardi, an alumna of the dual MPH/MCRP program at UNC. Her intention was to create a forum for graduate students from multiple disciplines to delve more deeply into these issues.
The mission of GRITS is to prepare students for community-based field work by exploring the distinctive challenges and opportunities in the American South. The initiative began with a series of journal clubs, panel discussions and guest lectures, including a rural health roundtable on the health of farmworkers in Eastern North Carolina, and a talk titled “Southern Discomfort” by Mindi Spencer, a professor at the University of South Carolina.
Last year, the group hosted a panel discussion on public health in local affordable housing facilities with representatives from CASA, the Greensboro Housing Coalition, and the Charlotte Planning Department. Kirstin Frescoln, a doctoral student in DCRP also offered her perspective based on her research on how housing and community development can improve the health and wellbeing of vulnerable populations. GRITS also hosted a screening of Deep South, a documentary about the neglected HIV/AIDS crisis in the rural south, and a panel discussion on defining and sustaining a local food economy in the Piedmont region.
GRITS event flyer, Spring 2016.
This year, we hope to increase interdepartmental collaboration, facilitate more skill sharing and skill building workshops, and increase volunteering and shadowing opportunities with local organizations. A skill-sharing social with graduate students from the Center for the Study of the American South, a panel on initiating and implementing health policy, and a community asset mapping workshop are currently on the books.
As anyone who has ever overheard a dispute about the superiority of tomato- or vinegar-based bbq sauce knows, Southern culture is nuanced and multifaceted. So too, are the solutions to our health concerns. New perspectives and interdisciplinary collaboration are a vital part of the problem-solving process, and, given the deterministic relationship between the health of communities and the physical environment on which they’re built, a partnership between Public Health and City Planning would be a valuable asset. Our next general meeting will be on October 24 from 2-3pm, location TBD. We would love for you to join us and share your ideas.
If you can’t make the meeting but are interested in joining GRITS or attending our events, sign up for our listerv by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/groups/GRITSatUNC/.
Featured Image: A Piggly Wiggly store in Owasso, Oklahoma in 2006. Photo Credit: Wikimedia.
1 The State of Obesity. Adult Obesity in the United States. 2016. Available online at: http://stateofobesity.org/adult-obesity/.
2 The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Health and Health Coverage in the South: A Data Update. 2016. Available online at: http://kff.org/disparities-policy/issue-brief/health-and-health-coverage-in-the-south-a-data-update/.
About the Author: Sarah Shaughnessy is a dual Master’s degree candidate in Public Health and City and Regional Planning. She grew up in Raleigh, attended Grinnell College in Iowa, and spent a year working on an organic farm in Washington State before returning to North Carolina for graduate school. She serves on the GRITS leadership team along with Public Health students Hannah Quigley and Bridget Hoschwald.