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UF researchers taking part in project to examine Florida’s farming communities

UF Health researchers posing for a photo

Two University of Florida researchers and a community leader are about to embark on a three-year journey around the state to delve into mental, physical and economic well-being of farmworkers, an essential but under-examined segment of Florida’s population.

Jeanne-Marie Stacciarini, Ph.D., R.N., FAAN, an associate professor in the UF College of Nursing, part of UF Health; Gülcan Önel, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the food and resource economics department of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences; and Antonio Tovar, Ph.D., a community partner from the Farmworker Association of Florida, have been selected for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Interdisciplinary Research Leaders program.

The overall goal of their research project, titled, “A Rural State of Mind: Addressing Mental, Physical and Economic Health of Farm Communities in Florida,” is to advance the understanding and promote the well-being of farmworkers and small farmers using multicultural research strategies and social network analysis.

“Despite their contribution to the economy and sustainability of food production systems, little attention has been given to the unique social, economic and political circumstances impeding health equity and well-being of rural farm communities in Florida,” Önel said. “These underserved groups face significant, yet distinct, socioeconomic issues that have been overlooked in previous health and well-being studies.”

For the next three years beginning this fall, the team will engage with various rural farm communities and diverse stakeholders throughout the state. During the first year of the project, they plan to develop and strengthen relationships with growers and Hispanic and Haitian farmworker communities to learn their concerns and perspectives on health issues, create trust and develop an approach for effective communication throughout the project. Community-based participatory research will be used so that the community can be active and engaged in the research development and implementation.

“The end goal is to cultivate a sense of community and connectedness between farmers and the farmworkers, who otherwise may have opposing social views and policy priorities,” Tovar said. “The objective of the Interdisciplinary Research Leaders program is to bring about a culture of health within one’s communities. We aim to make well-being a common cause among Florida’s rural communities.”

Designed for teams of two researchers and one community leader, Interdisciplinary Research Leaders supports engaged research, crafted and conducted by innovative teams to explore a problem and apply a solution in real time, making an immediate positive impact in their home communities. Stacciarini, Önel and Tovar make up the first group of researchers and community leaders from the state of Florida to be selected and the third overall cohort for the program.

The trio all have diverse and complementary research and community engagement skillsets and a strong commitment with rural communities. They have worked together as a team on smaller projects before applying for the Interdisciplinary Research Leaders program.

Stacciarini’s program of research has focused on social health determinants of mental well-being in rural Latinos and has included community-based participatory research and mixed methods in the United States and internationally. She is committed to understanding the needs of minority communities, and throughout her career, she has developed innovative research strategies and collaborations to help address psychosocial determinants of mental health within rural communities.

Önel is a research economist whose main research area is agricultural labor markets, focusing on how the legal status of workers and federal immigration policies affect the availability and wages of farmworkers and their rural livelihoods. She is also a data analyst with expertise in statistical modeling of structural changes in agricultural markets.

For the past 12 years, Tovar has been with the Farmworker Association of Florida, a statewide grassroots membership organization serving Central and South Florida. His work with the association focuses on advocacy, including informing local, state and federal policymakers about issues facing farmworkers, including occupational health risks and issues related to immigration.

The Interdisciplinary Research Leaders program supports and connects leaders who are committed to bringing about meaningful change and building a national culture of health. Participants build the interdisciplinary skills and relationships necessary to extend their influence and impact, break down silos, address health disparities and make communities healthier. The program provides participants with annual support of up to $25,000 and a one-time research grant of up to $125,000 per team.

“This team is equipped to look at socioeconomic determinants of rural well-being and equity,” Stacciarini said. “We bring various perspectives on the complex socioeconomic causes of health inequity in rural Florida, and we are ready to pursue research for developing a novel framework of rural well-being that has the potential to improve the livelihoods of farmworkers and small-scale farmers in the rural areas of our state.”

About the author

Anna Suggs Hoffman
Director of Communications, UF College of Nursing

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