Eating Right

State and local organizations place a renewed focus on food deserts

click to enlarge Sylvon Peeples, a community health coach for the Center for Closing the Health Gap, stands behind a recently added display of health food at the Ravine Street Market in Clifton Heights.
Sylvon Peeples, a community health coach for the Center for Closing the Health Gap, stands behind a recently added display of health food at the Ravine Street Market in Clifton Heights.

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or many Cincinnatians stranded in the city’s food deserts, corner stores — with their standard variety of processed, sugary foods — often become the default grocers.

Now, a local nonprofit group is trying small steps to bridge the divide between the grocery store haves and have-nots by putting healthier food options in these neighborhood corner stores.   

Center for Closing the Health Gap has spent the past year furthering its “Do Right! Healthy Corner Store Network,” which stocks items like fresh and canned produce, whole grain bread and cereals and dairy products in stores often known for carrying unhealthy products like soft drinks, cigarettes and candy.

The group has added such items to 13 stores in Avondale, Clifton, Bond Hill, Northside, Roselawn, South Cumminsville, Walnut Hills and the West End.   

The lack of a large-scale grocery store in these neighborhoods and a dearth of transit options to a neighborhood that does have a full-scale grocery leave many local, mostly low-income neighborhoods without access to the healthy food needed to maintain a balanced diet and curb obesity.   

“Typically in these neighborhoods, there’s no walkable grocery store nearby,” says Jessica Truong, the community health program coordinator for the Center for Closing the Health Gap. “So we want them to be able to have this option.”   

The group gave a tour of four stores in Walnut Hills, Clifton Heights and Over-the-Rhine last week, detailing the changes it made in each store and how the program works to engage the public.

The program, founded in February 2015, spent its first year incentivizing corner store owners to stock healthier foods by handing them $100 to start purchasing healthier items and supplying their stores with free mini fridges, shelving and signs to promote the new food options. It began with a $65,000 grant — $5,000 for each store — from local philanthropy organization The Greater Cincinnati Foundation.

The group conducted trainings with each store’s owner on how to purchase and store the new food items and how to market and rearrange the store to make it more appealing to customers. It also funds five “community health coaches” to rotate through the stores, conducting monthly quality checkups on the food, tracking the amount sold and hosting bimonthly “nutrition education tables” to provide nutrition information and simple recipe ideas to shoppers.

“You see people coming in who are excited about buying this food because it’s hard for them to get to Kroger or something like that,” says Jill Rone, one of the group’s community health coaches. “It makes a big difference when they can come here and get their vegetables.”

But some participating store owners say that, while they’re open to the idea of selling healthier food items, they haven’t seen much of an increase in its sale through the program.

Tenu Assefa, manager of Ravine Street Market in Clifton Heights, says her customers, who are mostly University of Cincinnati students, are happy to see the healthier items, but her business has only improved slightly since the addition of the healthier items.

“It’s slow, but it’s picking up,” Assefa says.

Solomon Woldrufle, owner of Johnny’s Market in Walnut Hills, says he jumped on board right away when the Center for Closing the Health Gap approached him about the program last February.

“I wanted to have fresh produce,” he says. “That’s what I feed my kid at my house.”

Woldrufle says his customers have been happy to buy the new produce, but also said that his current supply of healthy options — a shelf of apples and various green vegetables near the store’s door — has been there for two or three weeks. 

The push to eliminate food deserts and increase access to healthier foods in low-income areas often comes as another way to combat obesity. The city’s rate of obesity is 63.6 percent — nearly two out of three Cincinnatians are obese, according to Xavier University’s 2010 community health assessment.   

The Centers for Disease Control recommends putting supermarkets in underserved areas and offering local food vendors incentives for selling healthier food as strategies for lowering obesity rates.

Launched in 2004, the Center for Closing the Health Gap is intended to combat racial and health disparities through healthy eating programs. It was founded by former Democratic mayor Dwight Tillery, a close political ally to current mayor John Cranley.

Under Mayor Cranley, the group has seen a significant increase in public funding. The city’s 2016 budget allotted $750,000 to the nonprofit after taking in just $200,000 under the city’s 2014 budget.

The city has also launched its own efforts toward alleviating food deserts.

Last December, City Council approved the Grocery Attraction Pilot Program with hopes of attracting grocery stores to federally defined food desert areas. Incentives include a tax abatement for up to 75 percent of property improvements for 12 years or longer and having the city foot the bill for the store’s annual food service permit costs for up to five years, covering the permit fee itself as well as review and inspection fees.   

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines an urban food desert as a census tract in which at least 500 people, or one-third of the population, live more than 1 mile from a large grocery store and at least 20 percent of residents either live below the poverty line or have a median family income that is 80 percent or less than the median family income of the greater Cincinnati area. Large areas of Walnut Hills, Avondale, Bond Hill, Evanston and Northside have long met this definition.

Two upcoming grocery stores will meet the program’s guidelines: a Save-A-Lot in Avondale set to be constructed this year at the corner of Reading Road and Forest Avenue, and Clifton Market on Ludlow Avenue, which is expected to open this summer in the old Keller’s IGA building. The proposed Apple Street Market in Northside, which is still securing funding, would also be included.

On March 7, U.S. Sen. Steve Stivers (R-OH) and state Rep. Ryan Smith (R-Bidwell) announced a similar effort called Healthy Food for Ohio. The state will partner with private businesses to offer $10 million in grants and loans to help grocers open in low-income and underserved neighborhoods.

“This program was created to address the reality that there are several communities that are in desperate need of a grocery store,” Smith said in a prepared statement.

Despite the increased attention and funding these programs bring, some research has found that putting healthy foods in food deserts isn’t enough to lower the high rates of obesity found in the same areas.

A five-year study published in the November 2014 edition of the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that in low-income Pittsburg neighborhoods, rates of obesity correlate more significantly with the price of healthy food and the way it is marketed to consumers than the length of travel required to purchase it.

Truong of Center for Closing the Health Gap says the group finished the first phase of the project last month, which was the transition of the 13 corner stores into “healthy corner stores.” Community health coaches will continue the next part of the project for an additional two years by making regular quality control checks, recording sales and hosting educational tables. ©

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