News From Terre Haute, Indiana

December 2, 2012

YOUR GREEN VALLEY: Numbers indicate majority of us are living in a ‘food desert’

Jane Santucci
Special to the Tribune-Star

---- — I’m not a big fan of statistics, but here is some food for thought.

With a quick count in the phone book there are 15 dollar stores, 12 pharmacies and 36 gas stations in Vigo County. This means there are roughly 60 places walkable for people to buy some type of packaged, processed food.

Compare 60 with the number seven — the number of grocery stores. Of the seven, only a couple are within walking distance to a neighborhood.

What do all of these numbers mean? The majority of us are living in a “food desert.”  

For the past two years San Antonio, Texas, has been tackling the issue of food deserts head on. It started by surveying local grocery and convenience stores by using the guidelines of the Nutrition Environment Measurers Survey to find out what healthy foods they were selling, if any. The survey showed there is a lack of healthy choices available. With that information, the town decided to tackle the convenience stores first.

The availability of healthy foods in communities matters, for it is widely proven that without proper nutrition childhood and adult obesity will continue to increase.

“We know the health disparities that exist in San Antonio. There are high rates of obesity and high rates of diabetes,” San Antonio Chronic Disease Prevention Program Manager Kathy Shields said.

“We know one of the reasons that these conditions exist is there is a limited access to healthy food and places for people to exercise. Part of our mission at the public health department is to prevent chronic diseases. Within that work we are always looking at how to make healthy food more accessible to people, especially those who are disproportionally affected by chronic disease. And how to make it easier for people to access places where they can be physically active.”

From a grassroots level organizers decided to find store owners who would be interested in selling fresh and frozen produce to participate in the program. Last year they were able to find two stores eager to participate. From there they helped the stores find a resource or source for fresh and frozen produce.

Because of the cost associated with obesity there are a lot of grant opportunities to fund projects of the like. San Antonio officials were able to get grant funding to help store owners purchase refrigerators and freezer units to help store the fresh produce.

The continued partnership between city officials and store owners did not stop there. They also helped them with the promotion of their produce, including signage, advertisements and giveaways.

“If a customer were to buy produce then we would provide an insulated grocery tote bag that they could take home,” Shields said. “We presumed that a lot of the folks who visited the stores walked to the corner store because they are right in the heart of the neighborhoods.”

A lesson from San Antonio

One of the main lessons San Antonio learned from its first year was that fresh produce would sell. But frozen produce did not.

The problem was not so much a convenience factor, but that the customers didn’t know what to do with the frozen food once they brought it home. To overcome this hurdle they started offering scheduled cooking demonstrations outside the store. In addition, they had a registered dietician on site to answer any questions and hand out healthy recipe cards using ingredients available at the store.

“We feel like you need to do more than make fruits and vegetables available in the store,” said Shields. “In many cases you have to teach people how to cook it. It has turned out to be very popular when you actually have someone on site preparing a dish with the produce that people can actually taste and know it is healthy because we have analyzed the recipe.”

Since the inception of the program, they have eliminated frozen produce. They also started working with four new stores. Each new store that came online was located near a different neighborhood to help serve more people. For a store to qualify for the program, it had to go through an application process and meet certain criteria. One of the main criteria was that it could not be located in close proximity to a grocery store.

“We are looking for corner stores that are walkable from nearby neighborhoods. We know in many cases walking is the customer’s main means of transportation. If the individual can only walk to the corner store and that is the only place where they can get their groceries, then we want to make sure there are some healthy choices available,” said Shields.  

Organizers have been tracking the produce each store purchases and sells. Shields says the first two stores that signed on with the program could not keep produce on the shelf; it sold out every time. In some cases it would take a little bit more marketing to get people to think about purchasing produce at the store. In the end, it has been the education coupled with the availability of fresh produce that has made the program a success.

A healthier option

“In this day and age, people are inundated with messages about healthy eating and being more physically active,” said Shields. “I think there are a lot of people looking to make a change in the way they cook at home or in what they eat when they are on the run. This is a good way to help those looking to make healthier choices.”

While everything may be bigger in Texas, this program could work right here in the Wabash Valley. A simple, small selection of locally grown, fresh produce can go a long way in helping those looking to set a healthier New Year’s resolution.

Santucci is an environmental freelance writer for the Tribune-Star. Santucci is a volunteer with TREES Inc. and Our Green Valley. Share your environmental stories and tips with her at JaneSantucci@yourgreenvalley.com.