A New Initiative Works to Bring Fresh Food to Ohio's Food Deserts

Aug 26, 2016
Originally published on August 28, 2016 7:36 pm

Food deserts are not just an urban problem. On many Ohio country roads, you can drive for miles without finding a grocery store. But a new public-private partnership is working on the problem as WKSU’s Vivian Goodman reports in today’s Quick Bite.

“One of my most favorite things to do on a summer day like this is to be able to drive the country roads of Ashtabula County,” says state Sen. Capri Cafaro. “It is peaceful. There’s a lot of natural beauty.”  

But not a lot of food available for purchase. Cafaro knows the problem well.

“For someone passing through, that might be an inconvenience. But for someone who actually lives here, it’s a matter of quality of life.”

Driving for miles for fresh food

Barbara Klingensmith’s social service agency, Country Neighbor, tries to help.

“We provide a wide variety of services from home-delivered meals to emergency food to homemaker, personal care, transportation, a lot of different programs.”

Klingensmith covers a lot of miles helping people in Ashtabula get groceries.

“In Orwell, you have Sav-a-Lot; in Andover, you have Sparkle, and both of those are the closest grocery store within 20 miles. And if transportation is an issue where they don’t drive, you rely on family. We take them grocery shopping. It’s very limited., very limited access.” 

Hazardous to health

That inability to get fresh food is a health hazard in both urban and rural communities, according to Caroline Harries of The Food Trust.

At a Statehouse news conference in March, she presented her national non-profit group’s study.

“The findings are astounding. Nearly one million residents of Ohio, including close to a quarter million children, live in these areas that are not just low income, they don’t just have poor access to grocery stores, but they also are suffering from higher rates of death from diet-related disease.”

The health risk posed by inaccessibility of fresh food is indicated by Ohio’s infant mortality rate, according to Dr. Rosemary Riley of the Healthy Food for Ohio task force. In 2011, it was 30 percent higher than the national average.

“Part of that is due to the diets as well, and so the infant mortality task force has identified lack of access to grocery stores as a real concern and part of the social determinants of that infant mortality.”  

Incentives for grocers

Accessibility to fresh food might be a life or death issue. But just how do you get grocery stores, which typically operate on low profit margins, to locate in areas where they can’t easily make money?

That’s the problem a new public-private partnership is trying to solve. A 50-member task force is recommending the state invest $10 million to encourage grocers to open new stores in underserved areas.

Kristin Mullins, CEO of the Ohio Grocers Association, also spoke at Healthy Food for Ohio’s kickoff news conference about how one-time, upfront grants and loans could help.

“Land acquisition, equipment purchases, store renovation, workforce development, security, all these things are somewhat barriers to my members to create and open new stores. So this program will really help offset those and help to reduce that risk out there.”  

Not a single store in Vinton County

Ohio’s 15th District Congressman Steve Stivers got behind the Healthy Food for Ohio initiative because Vinton County, which he represents, has no grocery stores.

“There is frozen food at a Dollar General, but they’re having trouble getting access to produce, and if you can’t drive 30 or 40 minutes to Athens, you have real trouble getting access to fresh food.”

Vinton County has a population of just over 13,000.

“It’s almost easier to solve the problem in urban areas because there is the mass of people there. There may not be a lot of income, but there is clearly the population to support a grocery store. It’s a more thorny problem in rural areas like Vinton County, Ohio.” 

Or Northeast Ohio’s Ashtabula County. This is farm country with soy and corn fields as far as the eye can see, but beyond the occasional farm stand, very little food available for purchase.

Population density too low for grocers to profit

Ashtabula County has more than 100,000 residents, but many of state Sen. Capri Cafaro’s constituents are low-income and potential grocery shoppers are spread out over a large area.

“Because of pervasive poverty, because it’s the largest geographic county in the state of Ohio, because there is limited access to transportation, even though we grow food it doesn’t mean that people have access to food or to a variety of food.” 

Cafaro takes us for a ride to illustrate the point. We met in Pymatuning Valley High School’s parking lot. On our way there from Willoughby Hills all along Route 6 we found no food to buy.

“Well, if you go up and down 193, as well,” says Cafaro, “you won’t find anything either. That’s why I felt like this was the crossroads, out of all of Ashtabula County the road that has the least is 193.” 

We’re in South County, Ashtabula, the most rural part of Cafaro’s 32nd Senate District. After driving south on 193 for 20 miles, we still find nowhere to buy food.

“So here we are crossing the border from Ashtabula into Trumbull counties. And we have seen not even a convenience store, not even a gas station.”   

Standing joke

We keep looking.

“We’re going south. We’re 10 miles from Orwell to our west and 8 miles to Jamestown, Pa. Now right over here on the left, there’s a sign saying Crossroads Family Restaurant. ... It’s been closed, I believe at least five years.”  

  Cafaro and Columbus friends have a standing joke about her district.

“They’ll say, 'Where’s your nearest McDonald’s? ’25 miles away. ‘Well, where’s your nearest big grocery store? ’ 25 miles away. ‘Well, where do you go to eat?’ 25 miles away. So the joke is anytime you say where is this? They say, ‘Oh, yeah , we know 25 miles away.’”

Cafaro says the food desert problem in areas like Ashtabula has never really been addressed.

“The three C’s, Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati tend to get much more attention, and hence more resources just by sheer volume of population.” 

Lack of outcry

There hasn’t been much outcry about the lack of grocery stores. Cafaro says her constituents are used to driving for miles to shop. Besides, she says rural Ohioans tend to take care of each other.

“The churches and the community gathering places become a lot of the places where you get food. The Rome volunteer fire department on Route 6 has a basically famous fish fry every single week.”

But Congressman Stivers says so much more could be done to get fresh food to rural Ohioans, and he’s hopeful the Healthy Food for Ohio initiative can succeed like Pennsylvania’s Fresh Food Financing Initiative. It used $30 million in state funds to leverage $145 million in additional investment, leading to 90 new grocery stores.

“It’s gotten healthy foods to thousands of people that live in Pennsylvania, and we’re hopeful that this Ohio Healthy Foods Initiative will work in Ohio in both urban and rural areas where people don’t have access to healthy food.”   

Copyright 2016 WKSU-FM. To see more, visit WKSU-FM.