By Katie Sobiech
It’s a term many are unaware of, and can be defined in many ways.
Though there is no specific definition that everyone agrees on, one definition explains it to be “a geographic area where affordable & healthy food is difficult to obtain, particularly for those without access to an automobile (wikipedia.com).”
They are also known to exist in rural areas and low-income communities.
“Some research links them to diet-related health problems in affected populations. Food deserts are sometimes associated with supermarket shortages and food security” (wikipedia.com)
Food security on the other hand, is a condition that “exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
The USDA provides food desert maps on their website, which offer a close up look at your location by area code or county. But Summit County has been fortunate enough to have their own study done, and the results came out better than we thought.
“As far as Summit County, it shows that we have very reasonable access to food,” Norman said.
Local Researchers Tackle Food Deserts
Local groups have done their own research to scope out local food deserts, and to their surprise found that Summit County is better off than they thought.
Chris Norman of Crownpoint Ecology Center, and Jerry Eagan, came together to create a Food Desert Map of Summit County.
“We’re trying to accomplish a snapshot as far as availability. Where is food in the county? Where are people and where are the gaps? We sort of entered in with an assumption that there are some real food access issues,” Norman said.
“I think this process was affirming as far as the current efforts to provide access for people,” he continued.
The data that they and others across the U.S. have now obtained hadn’t been available much before now.
Breaking It Down
The research involved in locating food deserts was intense, and not as simple as it may sound.
Putting restaurants aside, they collected the data on places where people have access to food on a regular basis.
They ultimately narrowed the list down to moderate and large-sized grocery stores having a full-range of food products.
Sixty-nine stores fell into this category – not including farmers markets due to their being seasonal and open only once a week as opposed to every day. Placing stores on a map, Norman and Eagen searched for gaps. The USDA allows a one mile radius from a grocery store before considering it a gap.
Market studies from grocery stores differ, as they typically consider a two mile radius to form a market area.
During their study they looked at income issues as well, including income and household density, population density and persons under 18.
They also did a travel time study – how long it takes a person to get to their nearest grocery store when driving.
As for those without transportation, Jerry says “Poor people have pretty good access to the bus and therefore, pretty good access to grocery stores because all of them (grocery stores) are served by public transit.”
Jerry was impressed to find that every senior development project within the county has service at least twice a week to a range of grocery stores, several times a day.
“It’s really a convenient and helpful way to get a population that may have problems getting around. And these busses pull right up to the door to senior units and grocery stores,” Jerry said.
“If nothing else, the maps help stimulate conversation, where is food access and availability?” he continued.
The Food Policy Coalition
The Food Policy Coalition (FPC) was formed in Summit County to bring awareness, discussion and change around this subject matter,.
The goal has been to create a policy that advocates for fresh, healthy food. (We will have more on their Food Charter in another story.)
Norman considers the FPC “a local incarnation of what you find around the western world, bringing people together, looking at access to food, land management and building economic well-being.”
It may sound simple, but not everyone has been willing to jump on board.
Though they received positive results regarding local food deserts, they did find areas of improvement that could be addressed within the county. One of the biggest blocks standing in the way of local farming and access to healthy foods seems to be the marketplace set-up.
What counts as a “grocery store”? Some in the inner cities don’t have easy access to fresh, healthy foods. Instead, they are shopping at their local convenience store packed with chips and candy.
If you ask any of the front-runners in the local food movement about the marketplace, most will say it’s failed.
“The money is in the marketing and distribution, it’s not in growing the food,” Norman said.
“But health” he added “is in growing the food.”
Somehow there has been a break in the market place’s connection between fresh foods, health and diet-related diseases.
“As far as food access, access to healthy food and environmental stewardship related to wildlife and people (they’ve failed),” Norman said.
What we currently have is a system built by many big industries generated on transportation, food processing and distribution.
“They are the players and there’s a real strong vested interest in the paradigm that . . . we have,” Norman said.
Everything is “set” in a way that is extremely difficult to change.
The problem is, not enough attention has been paid to measuring and valuing sustainable in the system, such as next generation farmers, or health-conscious people who want to grow their own food.
“Or supporting local growers, rather than the cheapest avocado they can find…” Norman shared.
Eagan agrees, saying farming is difficult, and made even more so by all of these factors.
Part of their mission is to educate people on the benefits of local farming in relation to health.
“You see the correlations between people’s access to fast, or processed food, and the incidents of diet related diseases,” Norman said.
“There are opportunities where you have a captive audience,” he continued, using the example of schools and hospitals.
“There’ve been lots of initiatives around farm-to-school education, purchasing local foods for cafeterias and for hospitals. We are beginning to see it’s not just what medicine you give (patients), but food is medicine,” he said, “So how can we source local?”
The Food Charter addresses all of these issues.
“We see the importance of it [the Food Charter] because we’re able to bring together departments and folks that are doing (different) segments of the work,” Norman said.
This gives them a more holistic view.
Local initiatives include Ms. Julie’s Kitchen and Little Mike’s Market, both of whom are expanding their availability of fresh produce to the public. A small convenient store selling candy and alcohol now offers a variety of fruits and vegetables.
“I think there’s potential there to work with existing owners that are interested, to help them become more of a community hub that’s providing more than just beef jerky and cigarettes. It’s a little more of a well-rounded thing,” Norman said.
He also brought up the point that it could help bring in more sales by having more of a variety. The owner of Little Mike’s Market can attest to that, as he has seen sales rise since the inclusion of healthy produce in his store.
One of the biggest issues holding this idea back from spreading further is lack of cooler space.
This problem can be solved through access to grants and micro-loans which would help small, neighborhood markets afford coolers for produce.
Next Norman would like to begin food assessments that are more neighborhood based. “Where you are looking at a given store, a given community and people’s real experience in gathering food,” he shared.
By doing this, they will be adding a qualitative view, as well as the quantitative, giving people a chance to speak about their experiences.
He uses an example that he experienced with Slavic Village in Cleveland some time ago.
“You start talking to the residents and they’ll tell you ‘yeah, there are two food pantries but the one, they’ll never answer their phone’. You start to find out what their experience is,” Norman said.
Another venture he mentioned is Cleveland’s City Fresh Program where they’re gathering food from regional and Amish farms and bringing them into city areas.
“It’s not just ‘Will Walgreens carry lettuce?’ or ‘Will Mustard Seed set up a new store in our neighborhood?’ But there are different ways in which people can have improved access to food,” Norman explained.
One of these is Cleveland’s City Fresh Program featuring SNAP, so people can pay with their SNAP card for a CSA share for the week. This allows lower income households to still have access to fresh, healthy foods.
Community-supported agriculture (CSA; sometimes known as community-shared agriculture) is an alternative, locally-based economic model of agriculture and food distribution. A CSA also refers to a particular network or association of individuals who have pledged to support one or more local farms, with growers and consumers sharing the risks and benefits of food production. CSA members or subscribers pay at the onset of the growing season for a share of the anticipated harvest; once harvesting begins, they receive weekly shares of vegetables and fruit (wikipedia.com)
Change is Happening
Slowly but surely, change is happening.
“We’re starting to see some change,” Norman said, “Whether it’s providing for employees, improving meals served to patients, or prescribing so that they can go to farmer’s markets so they can go to CSA,” Norman said.
Akron General is said to be incorporating health methods, which others may be copying.
The Akron Community Foundation (ACF) is also now much more engaged in helping them structure the next year-plus of the coalition.
Since this work has been done they have had the Corner Store Project as well as have worked with many more community garden start-ups.
They’ve developed a series of goals and measurements with the ACF.
Public meetings are starting this month (January) and will take place quarterly.
“We are the change!” Chris said.