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Spring 2022
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Public Health in Practice: Good Bowls Pays It Forward During Pandemic

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A Gillings professor's effort to provide healthy foods to families in need also helps struggling restaurants during the pandemic.

Gillings experts and students are engaging in practice that makes a difference locally, nationally and globally.

For longtime nutrition researcher Alice Ammerman, DrPH, Mildred Distinguished Professor of nutrition at the Gillings School of Global Public Health and director of the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, working to address long-term public health issues like chronic disease and food insecurity required a long-term solution.

“In this line of research, I kept finding that I couldn’t make a lasting impact — when a grant ends, a program ends,” she says. “I needed to find a way to build something that was self-sustaining.”

In 2018, Ammerman founded social venture start-up Equiti Foods and created Good Bowls, nutritious frozen meals that are prepared using products from local farmers. Online and in-store product sales, along with grants and donations, help provide cost-subsidized bowls to communities that otherwise lack access to nutritious, healthy meals. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Good Bowls team designed an innovative initiative called “Pay it Forward” — a collaboration among Good Bowls, Pittsboro Eats! and other community organizations, small farmers, local restaurants and volunteers — to promote good nutrition and help food-insecure families during the pandemic. The idea was inspired by a story Ammerman heard on the radio about someone in Texas paying a restaurant to provide food for families in California. “I thought if it could work from Texas to California, it could work here,” she says. 

"My research has always been very applied and practice-oriented because I’ve always wanted to do something that has a more lasting impact."

— Professor Alice Ammerman, DrPH

Funded partly by an NIH grant with supplemental COVID funding, the initiative uses social media to urge people to donate a bowl (or more) through an online portal. Ammerman coaches participating restaurants on a healthy bowl recipe along with options for sourcing from local farmers. The restaurant cooks a big batch of food for the bowls, which are then packed and sealed by the Good Bowls team and local volunteer groups. The bowls are frozen and delivered to Communities in Schools (CIS) for distribution in Siler City, where there is a large Latinx population hit hard by COVID-19 and food insecurity. 

Since it began in June, Pay it Forward has provided more than 1,500 donated meals to local families, while helping local farmers increase their sales and providing local restaurant partners with a COVID-safe boost in business.

“It made sense for us to partner with Good Bowls because our relationships with local families allow us to get those resources to people in need,” says CIS Executive Director Tych Cowdin. “Distributing perishable foods with a small staff can be difficult, so having healthy frozen meals is a wonderful idea. Another thing I appreciate about Good Bowls is that they are always so responsive to what people want and need — they are always seeking feedback from the clients and from their partners.”

That responsiveness is in keeping with Ammerman’s reliance on community-based participatory research (CBPR), a research approach that focuses on partnerships between researchers and the community in order to improve health outcomes and build community capacity.

“My research has always been very applied and practice-oriented because I’ve always wanted to do something that has a more lasting impact. My focus is on trying to understand what communities need and working with them to develop strategies to address these needs,” she says. “Intensive research-driven interventions may be totally impractical and unsustainable in practice, so involving community partners who are ‘in the trenches’ is really important.”