FreshLink: Creating Healthier Communities One Connection at a Time

The PRCHN’s core research, FreshLink, is in the midst of the summer farmers’ market season, building upon the work of previous years to deepen its outreach efforts. FreshLink Program Manager Rachael Sommers’ office team includes FreshLink Intervention Implementation Facilitator Lauren Vargo and Data Manager Roberto Martinez, as well as four FreshLink Ambassadors working at farmers’ markets and community events.

2018 FreshLink staff2018 FreshLink staff:  front row, Carmen Nieves, Roberto Martinez. back row (l. to r.), Ayana Abi-Kyles, Diane Pride-Mays, Rachael Sommers, Pamela Hamby

Vargo works with Sommers on the day-to-day program management, communications with the ambassadors, communications with agencies, schools, and organizations to schedule outreach events, and the dissemination of FreshLink material. Martinez develops and maintains the databases used to track the progress of the program and generates reports related to the redemption of coupons distributed by the FreshLink Ambassadors. Keeping track of the redemption rate is essential because it will help the team understand if the program is more or less effective than a typical marketing campaign that distributes coupons through other venues (e.g., newspapers).  The program’s four FreshLink Ambassadors, Ayanna Abi-Kyles, Pamela Hamby, Carmen Nieves, and Diane Pride-Mays, conduct outreach at both farmers’ markets and community events. They provide information about eating healthy on a budget, understanding the seasonality of produce in our area, offering and sometimes demonstrating simple recipes, and explaining SNAP and Produce Perks benefits to consumers at farmers’ markets. They also distribute coupons good for $5 at any of six FreshLink farmers’ markets: 

  • Gateway 105 in Glenville
  • Coit Road in East Cleveland
  • The Village Farmers’ Market in Slavic Village
  • North Union at Shaker Square
  • North Union at University Hospitals
  • Good Earth Farm Stand in Cudell neighborhood (96th and Madison)

Each of the FreshLink Ambassadors (FLAs) has been assigned one or two primary farmers’ markets. They also partner with their fellow FLAs at community outreach events and other sites, such as food pantries, neighborhood meetings, festivals, community events, and the Department of Job and Family Services office. Sommers and her team have streamlined the ambassadors’ schedules. While there are fewer ambassadors than in 2017, the 2018 FLA team has distributed more coupons at more community events than the prior year.

FreshLink’s Ambassador model recognizes that active community members are best equipped to understand the challenges of residents and relate to them. Vargo shares that one of the realizations she has had while working for the program is that “FreshLink is the epitome of the idea that sometimes someone else is better able to do a specific job or connect with people, than you are. Trying to improve one’s health by eating more vegetables and fruits, shopping at a farmers’ market instead of a grocery store, or learning new recipes can be a defensive and uncomfortable process. The FLA’s have not faced any adversity towards opening people up to the idea of more fruits/veggies or giving recipes to people, which says a lot.”

Given the nature of the FreshLink project, one potential pitfall identified by the entire team is the need to stay focused on making connections, not merely distributing coupons. “Our entire health promotion framework is predicated on the capacity of a community member to share knowledge and inspire and empower other community members to try and sustain healthier behaviors and increase their access to resources,” Martinez says. “I believe the team is doing a phenomenal job of staying focused on what matters: making connections with community members.” Program Manger Sommers agrees. “The goal is for the ambassadors to link residents to resources that can nurture healthy communities. Our vision is in the name: FreshLink.”