A desert is not what you’d expect to find when you move an hour north of New York City. But that’s exactly what Lisa Berrios and Albert Rodriguez discovered years after moving to the mountain-bound village of Highland Falls.
When the one dilapidated grocery finally folded, leaving behind a leaky roof and a cracked parking lot, the area instantly became a food desert, one of hundreds of places across the country without access to fresh, healthy and affordable food. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, between 25 million and 30 million Americans lack access to a grocery store, living more than a mile away in urban areas and 10 miles away in rural places. 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.
“We were without a store for more than two years,” said Berrios, whose family was used to food stands and stores within walking distance all over the city. “We had no access to healthy, fresh food. We live in a valley and to get to a store, you would have to drive 10 to 15 miles and cross a bridge or a mountain.”
If snow, calamity or a lack of transportation made the trip impossible, then the area’s 5,500 residents were out of luck.
Food access is becoming a national issue. Voices for Healthy Kids, a joint initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and American Heart Association, has chosen food access as a focus area. The initiative works to help all young people eat healthier foods and be more active.
A key goal of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign is to eradicate food deserts by providing incentives to encourage supermarkets to open in these neighborhoods. Financing programs have cropped up from Pennsylvania to California to help.
In New York, a state program provided financing so Berrios and her husband, who comes from a family of candy store, luncheonette and grocery operators in the Bronx, could become proud new owners of the MyTown Marketplace. The $30 million Healthy Food & Healthy Communities Fund provided financing in 2011. Today, the new store, a family business including their 21-year-old son Alex, has helped created eight full-time and 19 part-time jobs, a boon for the town’s health and economy.
“It was a huge challenge,” said Berrios, of the work and costs in renovating the broken-down former grocery site. “But we live here, too. We know what it’s like to not have access. With this help, we were able to open a nice, clean, friendly and safe store.”
“Today, we are the main staple of the community,” she said. “Just during this past winter storm, every person that came by said ‘thank God you guys were here.’ Everyone in this town can walk to this store.”
New York’s financing fund is administered by the nonprofit Low Income Investment Fund with its partners The Food Trust and The Reinvestment Fund. This program, along with those in New Jersey and Colorado, were modeled after the much-lauded Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative, led by The Food Trust and TRF.
Opening stores in food deserts are difficult for a host of financial obstacles: land development costs, employee training, insurance and more.
“These things all eat away at the bottom line,” said Brian Lang, director of the Food Trust’s National Campaign for Healthy Food Access. “Healthy food financing works to reduce the cost. At its core, it’s about making the store cheaper to develop.”
That can happen through better loan terms, subsidies, tax incentives and a host of other financial packages. In Pennsylvania, the financing program approved funding for 88 new and expanded markets since its creation in 2004.
In New Orleans, the Fresh Food Retailer Initiative was part of the financing that helped the iconic Circle Food Store reopen this past January. The store, in the 7th Ward devastated by Hurricane Katrina, is a local and historic landmark – as well as a needed mainstay of fresh food. A Tulane University study in 2012 showed New Orleans had one supermarket for every 14,000 residents. The national ratio was one supermarket to every 8,500 residents.
According to the International Council of Shopping Centers, retailers are making moves to fill the food gap across the country. Whole Foods, which already operates supermarkets in New Orleans, Detroit’s midtown and Boston’s Jamaica Plains, has plans to open a store on Chicago’s South Side. These minimally staffed prototypes have lower operating costs and some lower-priced food items, and they offer nutritional education and similar programs, according to shopping centers council. Since 2010, national retailer Walgreens has redesigned its stores in cities including Chicago, Denver and San Francisco to emphasize fresh and healthy food.
The issue of food deserts is more than an economic or equity issue. It’s a health issue. Clyde Yancy, M.D., a leading cardiologist and past president of the American Heart Association, said the proliferation of unhealthy but easily accessible foods, especially in low-income and minority communities, is driving the obesity epidemic.
At minimum, more must be done to provide informed choices to the community, said Yancy, who leads efforts to research heart-related conditions, train physicians and treat patients Professor of Medicine and Chief of Cardiology at Northwestern University’s School of Medicine.
The focus should be on making it easier – and more attractive – for people to eat healthy food, by increasing healthy food access and addressing the role food marketing plays in driving people’s choices. “I think that somehow or another, we need to break the social biology,” Dr. Yancy said.
Two of every three adults obese or overweight, and so is one-third of the population between ages 2 to 19. These rates are even more striking for children of color, with more than half of Hispanic and African-American children classified as overweight or obese.
Berrios said she sees the healthy habits growing in her community. Her 12,000-square-foot market has nine aisles and a double aisle dedicated solely to produce, its top-selling department. She says she is glad her 11-year-old daughter, Samantha, is able to see the fresh foods and daily access to healthy eating provided by the store.
“If you give access to people, you are giving them the opportunity to eat better,” she says. “If they can’t get to it and it’s not available, they are going to go for whatever they can.”
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