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Growing Food Security

Christine Porter
Christine M. Porter

Wyoming Excellence Chair in Community and Public Health Christine Porter’s new project studies the health impacts of gardening on the Wind River Indian Reservation.

By Micaela Myers

Can home gardening improve health? While most would guess yes, Christine M. Porter, Wyoming Excellence Chair in Community and Public Health, is studying this very topic in the first randomized control study on the subject.

This new five-year National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded project comes on the heels of her previous project, Food Dignity, which focused on communities creating sustainable food systems that build food security.

A Wind River focus: Blue Mountain Associates, a partner on both projects, is an organization based in the Wind River Basin that strives to provide quality programming and professional enterprise to help meet the health and human services needs of the area’s communities. The organization discovered many on the Wind River Indian Reservation had interest in gardening but lacked the money, expertise or labor to get started.

“We applied to NIH for funding to do a randomized controlled trial of the health impacts of gardens with Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho families of Wind River, and we got it,” Porter says. This followed pilot funding from Wyoming INBRE (IDeA Networks for Biomedical Research Excellence).

“Ultimately, Blue Mountain Associates will be supporting 100 families in starting gardens over the course of this project,” she says.

Healthy communities: While access to fresh produce is an issue in the area that the project will help address, Porter believes any health benefits of gardening accrue not only from the harvest: “There’s physical activity, stress reduction, being outside and time together with your family—it’s probably the whole package.

“Beyond the scope of the project’s central research question about health impacts of home gardens, I’m really interested in supporting Wind River in rebuilding healthy communities the way that makes sense to them. During the last year of the study in 2020, we’re going to have a national conference in Wind River to both share what we learned with other sovereign nations and also learn what they’re doing for their health. I’m hoping to increase the connections—not only within Wind River to improve their health but also connections nationally for sovereign nations to improve their health across the board in ways that fit.”

Wyoming home: Porter came to UW in 2010, drawn by the land-grant mission for education, extension and outreach and by the state’s stunning landscape. “My Ph.D. is in community nutrition, but I have learned from my community partners to be what I call post-disciplinary, because the solutions and the problems that Wyoming and the world face are not discipline based. Food systems are my focus in both my teaching and my research—building food systems … so that everyone has enough to eat now and in the future.”

Porter believes solutions for Wyoming must come from across the state, and she appreciates the local expertise her students bring to class and then take back to their communities: “For example, one of my undergraduate students took some of what she learned in my classes and what she knew from growing up in Torrington and helped create a new community farm and garden there.”

Keeping the circle of knowledge going, Porter is also involved in multiple initiatives to improve the science, technology engineering and math—STEM—pipeline for K–16 students moving on to higher education, including pathways for Native Americans from Wind River to become involved with STEM and health fields.

Porter plans to continue her work with Feeding Laramie Valley as well—another partner in the Food Dignity project. Many of her students have learned from Feeding Laramie Valley, and several have become involved in their work.

“I consider teaching a huge part of my work,” she says. “Learning from the students, who bring their expertise about their communities has taught me a lot about community and public health here in Wyoming—the issues they face and the solutions communities have.”

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