Public health major helps address food disparities in Baldwin County

The rural Coopers community of Baldwin County sits outside the city limits of Milledgeville. Although it’s only about seven miles on the southside of town, it’s in a desert of its own.

A food desert that is.

Through her internship, senior Christina Taylor spent her summer mapping the access to food in the county and found some areas face little access to food, especially healthy food.

Christina Taylor
Christina Taylor
“My research is around physical food environments in Baldwin County and rural, underserved communities,” she said. “In Baldwin County, we went around and mapped every establishment that sells food, regardless of if it's healthy or not healthy.”

Working with Dr. Damian Francis in Georgia College’s Center for Health and Social Issues, Taylor mapped more than 200 establishments from restaurants to grocery stores and convenience stores, gas stations, pharmacies and even coffee shops.

She found the Coopers community only had access to one gas station—which sells mostly unhealthy foods—leaving the folks living there in a food desert.

Taylor works with Dr. Damian Francis.
Taylor works with Dr. Damian Francis.

“We're covering disparities and the limitations to access,” said Taylor. “A food desert has limited options, especially to healthy foods.”

“We're also looking at limitations to access like transportation,” she said. “If people can't drive and the stores don't sell healthy foods, then these people who live on the other side of the county have to go all the way to Walmart or to Piggly Wiggly on the south side to have access.”

Her overall goal is to bring awareness by addressing food deserts and food swamps in rural communities, especially in central Georgia.

“A food swamp is an area that has an abundance of restaurants or fast food places,” she said. “It's mainly just an abundance of unhealthy food, so if it's unhealthy food, food deserts and food swamps present the same challenges with access to healthy food.”

Once she completes her work mapping the food locations, the findings will be shared with the county government to help create strategies to not only address issues in improving access but also to improve dietary health and the overall health of the community.

“Our research is also beneficial to gauge and attract larger corporations’ investment in smaller, rural communities,” said Francis. “The resulting food environment maps are intended to identify sparse food access, which is valuable to companies like Walmart or Dollar General who have smaller ‘market’ stores that only carry the essentials and offer fresh produce and meats.”

“Access to these types of stores is vital for rural community members and policy changes at the county level can help to ensure that access to healthy foods is an option for all,” he added.

Originally a nursing major, Taylor stumbled into public health and fell in love with the fact that “you literally can do anything” with the major.

A random conversation about her interests led to this internship with Francis, which also opened the door for her to pursue a master’s degree.

“I'm attending Johns Hopkins in the fall for spatial analysis for public health,” she said, “so I'm hoping that I can bring this research with me.” Using Geographic Information System (GIS) technologies— she will manage data and apply it geographically to see what's happening with the data.

“Johns Hopkins is the only program that I found in the U.S. that specifically has a spatial analysis master’s degree from a public health perspective,” said Taylor.

This internship marks the last requirement for her undergraduate degree. She offers this advice to other students.

“This is cheesy, but take advantage of every opportunity you get,” said Taylor. “Dr. Francis offered me my internships because I expressed just a random interest in GIS. I wasn't going to apply to Johns Hopkins until Dr. Francis offered me the internship, and now that’s where I’m going in the fall.”

“I do think the liberal arts focus of the college very much helps students figure out what they want to do because it is so broad and welcoming, you can do whatever you want."
– Christina Taylor