From left: Ryan Dunn with Earnest Porter and Aliya Hillian in the greenhouse at the Andrew and Walter Young Family YMCA in Atlanta. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Dunn)

From left: Ryan Dunn with Earnest Porter and Aliya Hillian in the greenhouse at the Andrew and Walter Young Family YMCA in Atlanta. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Dunn)

Ryan Dunn said he always noticed a common issue as a social entrepreneur helping children in Atlanta and Charlotte, North Carolina: Sugar was everywhere but healthy options were scarce.

“You see these kids going to school every day with a [soda and candy] bar and then they couldn’t sit still,” Dunn said. “They’d be full of sugar or hungry, and have a bad attitude or make bad decisions relating to others, and not understand why.”

Despite no background in agriculture, he created an urban farming program using an aquaponics greenhouse to educate children about the importance of nutrients for healthy gardening and healthy living.

His mission? Tackle the issue of food deserts, areas without access to fresh, healthy and affordable food. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 19 million Americans live in a food desert, meaning they live at least 1 mile from a grocery store that sells fresh fruits and vegetables. Studies show this can contribute to a poor diet and can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.

Dunn’s work is being featured in “Take Me Home,” an online documentary series by the American Heart Association about how the conditions in which people are born, live, work and age can impact heart health, stroke and high blood pressure.

New guidelines for treating high blood pressure released by the AHA and the American College of Cardiology in November showed most African-Americans – 56 percent of women and 59 percent of men – have high blood pressure.

Lifestyle modifications, such as losing weight, changing diet and increasing physical activity, play an important role in preventing and treating high blood pressure. However, making these changes can be difficult for those with poor social support, limited access to exercise opportunities and healthy foods, and financial challenges, according to the guidelines.

The AHA video series features local and celebrity ambassadors for EmPOWERED To Serve, which aims to improve health within multicultural communities by sharing innovative, grassroots approaches.

Caitlin Misiaszek, program officer in the Food Communities and Public Health program for the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, said increasing access to healthy food plays an important role in promoting community health. But she said it remains a complex issue requiring a variety of policy and education approaches at the community and individual level.

Ways to help address the issue include education programs on nutrition, policies to make it easier to obtain land for urban farming, incentives for fresh fruits and vegetables at local farmers markets and advocacy work to increase healthy food choices at corner stores, Misiaszek added.

Dunn cofounded the nonprofit Next Generation Youth Center in 2013, a mentoring program serving kids on probation, and arranged for each to get a box of food from the food bank where the program met. He now works as an urban agriculture consultant, offering programs for students and community groups.

He said his lessons are rooted in the science of farming with the goal of producing healthy food-producing plants, but serve as allegory for the bigger life lessons of patience, perseverance and the importance of overall health and nutrition.

“The goal was to help them make healthy lifestyle choices – both for heart health and mental health – to give them an outlet to direct their energy and to teach them a skill,” Dunn said.

Dunn’s journey with aquaponics also sparked a business idea: using herbs grown in the greenhouse to create low-sugar beverages that could provide an alternative to soda and other sugary drinks. He recently launched a company called Basil Me LLC to find ways to reduce sugary beverage consumption and has begun selling his creations in Georgia.

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