Research by Roanoke College professor, students could lead to healthy changes for community

(Left to right) Leah Hall, Lauren Roth and Dr. Elizabeth Holbrook track key areas of their research on a large map of Roanoke City's West End community.

(Left to right) Leah Hall, Lauren Roth and Dr. Elizabeth Holbrook track key areas of their research on a large map of Roanoke City's West End community.

The health and livelihood of a low-income Roanoke City neighborhood could change for the better as a result of extensive research by a Roanoke College professor and two of her students.

This past September, Dr. Elizabeth Holbrook, assistant professor of Health and Human Performance at Roanoke College, and students, Lauren Roth and Leah Hall, took to the streets of several neighborhoods in Southwest Roanoke City, with a camera and notepad in tow.

They snapped pictures, studied vegetable and fruit offerings sold in convenience stores and noted other details, from the condition of sidewalks to the distance between houses and parks, and the presence of bike lanes. Their work covered 48 blocks in several areas - Hurt Park, West End, Old Southwest and Mountain View - which comprise what the city refers to as the West End neighborhood.

The mission: Find ways to improve healthy habits for residents in these parts of the city that are deteriorating and suffering from years of disinvestment and an exodus of homeowners, according to the city's neighborhood revitalization plan, which targets West End.

Their research work found everything from sidewalks in need of repair to a lack of nearby fresh produce and high crime rates.

Ultimately, Holbrook, Hall and Roth's ideas could be incorporated in the West End revitalization plan with government funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Each year, the City of Roanoke receives about $3.5 million in grant funds through several HUD programs, including Community Development Block Grants. These grants fuel projects that benefit low-to-moderate income residents, and the money is used for everything from job training to construction projects.

The city's total HUD grant funding for the 2013-14 fiscal year has not yet been determined, though it likely will find out in February, said Keith Holland, who is Roanoke's community resources program administrator.

The need to increase healthy food offerings, safety and access to parks and other recreation in the West End area of Roanoke arose this year as a result of efforts by a local group called the PATH Community Coalition. The coalition, which includes representatives from Roanoke City Schools, several nonprofits, Dr. Hanna Jaworski, a Carilion Clinic pediatrician, and Holbrook, seeks initiatives to improve health and combat childhood obesity in the Roanoke Valley. The coalition receives funding from the Virginia Foundation for Youth.

Holbrook enlisted Hall, a senior at Roanoke who is majoring in Exercise Science, and Roth to help with the coalition's research and gain some on-the-ground experience at the same time.  The students spent six to seven hours a week exploring and researching the neighborhoods that make up the West End community.

"To see it become a very successful, well-off community is the goal," said Roth, a freshman who is part of the College's Undergraduate Research Assistants Program. This program matches Roanoke students with professors for four-year research projects.

The students spent several hours each Tuesday morning driving through the neighborhoods and photographing and documenting all that they saw.

They examined dilapidated sidewalks, noted where parks were located in relation to houses and studied the food offerings sold inside nearby convenience stores. Most stores only sell packaged items, with little or no fresh vegetables or fruits, Hall said. A weekly West End community market sells produce.

The students also examined crime statistics in the area. Safety is a major factor in determining whether people will walk to a nearby park for exercise.

"It's important to have some sort of physical activity level and to feel safe to do it," Hall said.

Roth and Hall met again each Thursday on campus to document their research and update Holbrook on their progress. They noted details of their findings on a large map of the neighborhoods that hangs on a wall in Holbrook's office, which is below Roanoke's Alumni Gym.

Holbrook and the students also sent a survey to families of children who attend Hurt Park Elementary School in Roanoke, asking questions about what they see as barriers to getting exercise in their community.

The results of the survey will be used for further research on barriers to physical activity during the 2013 spring semester as part of the project's second phase, Holbrook said.

Roth and Hall each wrote parts of the research report. Putting it together was the most challenging process in the project, Hall said.

Still, "I was shocked to see everything we did come together so fast," Roth said.

The students and Holbrook presented their findings to the PATH Coalition in early November.

Their suggestions included repairing run-down sidewalks and houses, adding bike lanes to streets and increasing nearby healthy food offerings. Adding healthy foods likely would involve attracting more grocers to the area, which now has mostly convenience stores with little or no produce offerings, Roth said.

Their research also found that crime is a problem in parts of the West End community.

Jaworski said the research findings were not surprising. She expected that crime and safety concerns are stunting healthy habits in the neighborhood.  

Even so, "the report isn't supposed to figure out the whys," Jaworski said. "It's supposed to show us those kinds of patterns. Then, you can ask that question."

Jaworski, Holbrook and the students met with Roanoke City Manager Chris Morrill and other city officials, including Holland, in late November to discuss the findings.

"They have some good ideas with looking at trying to improve access to parks and the greenway, which is something the city would like to do," said Holland, referring to the group's research. "We know we'd like to do some infrastructure work in the area. We need to do a lot."

But the exact changes that will be made and the necessary funds to fuel these improvements remain up in the air until HUD determines the grant amount, Holland said. The city will decide the projects to which the money will be allocated.

The City of Roanoke already has some revitalization initiatives, fueled by federal dollars, in the works. They include plans to develop a village center at 13th Street and Patterson Avenue, near the West End Community Market. The center would house a community kitchen and a Freedom First Credit Union branch.

Overall, the project has given Roth and Hall a unique window into hands-on research work. It's unusual for a college or university to offer freshmen the opportunity to conduct such extensive field study, Roth said.

The students and Holbrook are eager to see the results of their hard work.

"This is going to affect people," Hall said.

By Jenny Kincaid Boone '01

--posted Dec. 18, 2012