Widener Professor Aims to Bring Food Security to Chester

Marina Barnett and her students are using advocacy and technology to tackle the problem.

Help Where It’s Needed Most: Marina Barnett brings her Widener University class up to speed on Delaware County’s poor//Photo by Tessa Marie Images. 

One day soon, Chester will no longer be known as a food desert—at least, that’s the goal of Marina Barnett. It starts at places like the corner stores where kids go for breakfast. 

“It helps if they can see an orange or a yogurt, and it helps not just poor kids, but everyone,” says Barnett, an associate professor at Widener University whose courses prepare students to be effective social workers and researchers in urban communities. “Our job is to identify where the resources are and connect them to people in need.”

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Barnett’s six years of work has better equipped others to tackle the problem. The Food Trust’s Lauralee Lightwood-Mater has stepped in to supply some of the city’s corner stores with healthier options. And thanks to Jean Falk and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Summer Meals Program, any kid can walk up and get lunch at various sites in Chester during the months away from school. 

As a regional campaign manager of the American Heart Association, Tracy Weldon does similar work through the federally funded ANCHOR, short for the rather ungainly Accelerating National Community Health Outcomes through Reinforcing Partnerships. Increasing healthy foods in hospitals, food pantries and other community areas is an ANCHOR focus. Simply by targeting the Crozer-Keystone Health System, its local reach is more than 22,000.

Viewing access to food as nothing less than a social-justice issue, Barnett and her students began collecting food-asset data for the city of Chester in 2010. That year, she won Widener’s 2010 Fitz Dixon Innovation in Teaching Award for her initiative, and hundreds of students have advanced her crusade, with a focus on advocacy and the use of technology.

Barnett started with the graduate students in her “Social Work Practice with Communities” course, using a list of registered food-related businesses provided by the Chester Economic Development Authority. Students visited each spot and made inventories of food types, finding highly processed and otherwise unhealthy options. At the time, there wasn’t a single supermarket in Chester. In part because of Widener’s involvement, there’s now a Fare & Square, the nation’s first nonprofit grocery store. 


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Government data is telling. Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index has Chester’s congressional district as the country’s second hungriest. It’s the poorest district in the state and also one of the 10 most impoverished in the U.S.

“Food insecurity has to do with education—practical knowledge to know that it’s cheaper to buy better food outside a supermarket than processed food inside it,” says Barnett, whose grandfather was a tenant farmer in rural Oxford. “It’s also the idea of being insecure, knowing you’re skipping meals because you don’t have enough money.”

According to her students’ initial survey results, there were just three spots in Chester that sold fruits and vegetables. Each has since closed. One, a co-op grocery store, required $250 upfront, a buy-in Barnett characterized as cost- prohibitive. Another was a farmers’ market, but it wasn’t open all the time. The continuing goal is to see what corollaries can be drawn between food resources and wellness outcomes. “As a social worker, you assess,” Barnett says. “You don’t go in with preconceived notions—you try to figure out what’s going on. We like to show students that research is for a purpose. It’s not just to know, but to do something with what you know.”

At Widener, Barnett is also busy training colleagues in civic engagement. Out in the community, she works with agencies to identify service gaps and help their staffs build capacity to fill them. “My job is to try to lighten their load by connecting them to the resources, to enhance their services and sometimes their own professional capacity,” she says.

Former student Christine Rosenzweig is a Springfield native who graduated in 2015. Compelled to make a local impact, she initiated the Healthy Girls of Chester program during her senior year at Widener, working with young girls who had limited access to health and fitness. “Dr. Barnett was a key partner in helping form relationships because of her reputation in the community,” says Rosenzweig

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All of this is particularly rewarding for Barnett because she can see change happening right in front of her. “Kids are coming through the doors and getting meals,” she says. “We’ve done maps of other social issues, but this one seems to have attracted attention. It’s meaningful, compelling work, and it’s unique the way all these organizations are attacking one problem in multiple directions.” 

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