Virginia Tech® home

Petersburg Healthy Options Partnerships pivots to serve the community during COVID-19 pandemic

April 27, 2020

Petersburg Healthy Options Partnerships
Virginia State University Extension Health Specialist Debbie Jones and PHOPs Program Assistant Aiyana Gray distribute potatoes at a Petersburg, Virginia, elementary school. Dr. Marcus Comer, Extension Specialist at Virginia State University and director of the Harding Street Urban Agricultural Center, practices social distance while supporting the distribution.

Funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention High Obesity Program, the Petersburg Healthy Options Partnerships (PHOPs) project and community partners in the City of Petersburg, Virginia, have coordinated efforts to feed families and  improve access to healthy food in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since summer 2019, the PHOPs team has collaborated with community stakeholders in Petersburg to encourage healthier lifestyles. PHOPs partners include Virginia Cooperative Extension, the Petersburg Healthy Community Action Team (HCAT), the City of Petersburg, Petersburg Public Library and Healthy Living and Learning Center, Petersburg City Public Schools (PCPS), the Harding Street Urban Agricultural (AG) Center, River Street Market (the local farmers’ market), Kingdom Covenant Empowerment Center (KCEC), the Hope Center food pantry, local daycare centers, Virginia State University, and Virginia Tech.

Since the emergence of COVID-19, the PHOPs team, led by Kathy Hosig, associate professor in Virginia Tech's Department of Population Health Sciences and director of the Center for Public Health Practice and Research, has leveraged these partnerships to quickly mobilize and coordinate efforts to feed families and to improve access to healthy food.

“PHOPs is a community-engaged initiative designed to empower Petersburg residents to achieve healthy lifestyles," Hosig explained. “Providing access to healthy food for the people who need it most, especially during the pandemic, lifts the community and our hard-working team members.”

Because more than 90% of PCPS students are eligible for free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch, school closures due to COVID-19 impacted the community significantly. In addition, few local food outlets provide access to healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables. In this climate, an acute need to connect Petersburg families to food resources exists. As a result, when asked how PHOPs could assist PCPS, the superintendent indicated a need for food donations.

In light of its strong community partnerships, the PHOPs team was able to answer this call. The Harding Street Urban AG Center, for example, solicited potato donations from a local farmer for distribution to the community. Between March 27 and April 10, nearly 1,200 pounds of white potatoes were chopped and bagged by PHOPs team members and distributed at three elementary schools and at a local food pantry.

To further support the community and to assist the food distribution efforts of other partners, the team added two part-time food distribution assistants. The growing team was able to support KCEC’s meal distribution efforts at three residential neighborhoods, as well as at the Hope Center’s weekly lunch service.

These opportunities to enter into and connect with the Petersburg community have been both rewarding and inspiring for the PHOPs program assistants and food distribution assistants.

One of the team’s new members, Amina James, a freshman studying Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech, has deeply enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about community nutrition.

“This experience has been really eye-opening for me in that it has given me great insight into how the community works. There are often times stigmas surrounding low-income communities: ‘They don’t want to work’ or ‘It’s a scary environment.’ However, with these experiences, I found the opposite,” James said. “People are just people and are not defined by their low-income area. When we distributed food in the apartment complexes, the residents were excited and very eager to help. Kids offered to take bag lunches to their neighbors, which was really impressive. Overall, I have been struck by the sense of community, which I didn’t grow up with.”

Bishop Ramone Johnson of KCEC has similarly welcomed PHOPs support. “PHOPs’ presence,” he said, “is essential and vitally important to the progress of our residents in Petersburg and the tri-cities area.”

Through its extensive partnership network, PHOPs continues to procure food donations for the Petersburg community. Most recently, the team received nearly 8,000 hummus and pretzel snacks from Sabra® Hummus, which will be stored at the Harding Street Urban AG Center until distributed in the community. “PHOPs has been the missing piece to the puzzle as far as addressing issues with our food system in Petersburg, said Marcus Comer, AG Center director. “I am excited about all of the future plans we have in place.”

In the coming weeks, the PHOPs team will continue to address challenges to food access in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Two refrigerated trucks and vans rented with grant funds will be used to distribute the Sabra® healthy snacks with community partners. The trucks will also bring mobile markets to healthy food priority areas in partnership with River Street Market, which serves as the integral partner for sourcing produce, providing the ability to accept SNAP/EBT, and utilizing Virginia Fresh Match funds to match SNAP purchases. By partnering with PHOPs, River Street Market is poised to extend access to quality produce to community members who live in healthy food priority access areas outside of its central downtown location.

This initiative has the long-term capacity to improve food access and health in Petersburg. “While the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world and shifted many plans,” said PHOPs Program Manager Morgan Maxwell, “I am proud to be a part of team that has been able to pivot with the times and still have a positive impact on the community.”

— Written by Morgan Maxwell, PHOPs program manager