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Deserts are dangerous places to live. The deserts in Jamestown and Chautauqua County now threaten the lives and wellbeing of thousands of local residents. At issue: Food Deserts.
In growing rural areas of Chautauqua County and sprawling urban neighborhoods of Jamestown, Dunkirk and many nearby smaller communities, people cannot readily purchase affordable, healthy food – especially fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy products – to feed their families. It just isn’t there.
Local Desert Dwellers
A food desert is where at least 500 people (and/or at least 33 percent of a community’s population) live more than 1 mile away (within a town or 10 miles in rural areas) from a supermarket or large grocery store that sells fresh produce, dairy and meats, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) definition.
Many local residents have expressed shock and surprise that communities such as Jamestown and surrounding rural areas contain Food Deserts. Local communities, however, are not alone in the battle for food security.
The USDA reports that about 23.5 million Americans currently live in food deserts, including 6.5 million children. A study reported by the New York Department of City Planning estimates that three million or more New Yorkers live in communities without enough access to markets with fresh produce, dairy or meat.
Fighting Back the Deserts
Chautauqua County, one of New York State’s most productive agricultural dynamos, has paradoxically lost much access to its own homegrown fresh foods. A number of local merchants, especially the so-called “Mom & Pop” stores, sometimes in spite of having provided generations of valuable community service, have lost ground to large statewide and national chains with massive buying power and a huge footprint.
Countering the trend however, some local merchants reflect a strong commitment to their local customers. Speaking about a large chain store that recently opened only a 3-minute ride from his Sinclairville Superette, owner Eric Spinler said, “When you buy locally, you support your neighbors and your local farmers. Your money stays in your community.”
“I don’t plan to give up,” Spinler told the Gazette, “because I offer a lot that the big chain stores can’t.” Spinler adds that big chain stores typically offer less healthy, less fresh, less nutritious canned, dried foods that are highly chemically processed. “Local stores know and serve local needs better.”
Recently, a number of local merchants have reported being forced out by Big Chain invasions. In some cases, loss of local merchants has created food deserts in previously healthy zones.
Food desert stores specialize in fast food, snack food and heavily marketed “junk food” whose nutrition-to-cost ratios are extremely poor. As a result, people who live in food deserts – typically a low-income population living on tight budgets – suffer higher rates of obesity, illnesses and disabilities like diabetes and cardio-vascular disease caused and worsened by poor access to nutrition – all of which spike increasing demands for health care services – as well as correlating with lower school success for children who live in food deserts.
“We’re working on an idea for ‘Pop-Up-Markets’ with the Jamestown Renaissance Corporation,” Ann Abdella, executive director of Chautauqua County Health Network, told the Gazette. Pop-ups could be 1-day, or possibly shorter span, farmer-style produce markets set up, possibly curbside, right within the borders of the recognized food desert area.
“One factor that contributes to food insecurity and food deserts is lack of transportation for some residents,” Abdella said. “If they cannot get to good food, maybe good food can get to them.”
Abdella also pointed out that SNAP (‘food stamp’) benefits can be used to purchase vegetable and fruit seed suitable for planting in private, community and even ‘back porch’ container gardens.
“I’m too poor to buy junk,” one shopper said at a local convenience store within a food desert region which is now experimenting with fresh produce sales, “I need every dollar to buy me as much of the stuff my kids really need as I can get. I’m glad this store is going to start selling fresh food.”
This shopper was responding to a new initiative called the Healthy Community Market program, piloted for National Nutrition Month at Jamestown’s Allen Street Grocery in partnership with the Chautauqua County Health Network (CCHN) through a Creating Healthy Schools and Communities grant. See page (XX ) to learn more about this innovative front in the battle. Jamestown’s south side has been designated a food desert and is now specifically targeted for “Re-greening.”
New York State Senator Catherine Young, having grown up on a New York farm herself, is on record supporting many initiatives that can counteract the threat of food deserts. For example, Senate Bill S3872, proposed in the 2017-2018 legislative session, would encourage expansion of and enhanced funding for farmer’s markets located in food deserts.
New York Assemblyman Andy Goodell has supported similar initiatives in recent years, such as Senate Bill 614, which would enhance distribution of NY-grown food to underserved markets, including supermarkets, regional farmers’ markets, colleges, food pantries, etc., would increase farm sales and benefit urban and suburban consumers with better access to fresh, quality fruits and vegetables.
Chautauqua County Epidemiology Manager, Breeanne Agett, describes a county program developed in cooperation with Cornell Cooperative Extension called “Growing Food Connections.” The aim is to fight food insecurity like that found in food deserts and help keep Chautauqua County’s 1,500 farms viable and competitive.
“We grow a lot of food around here,” Agett said, “But distribution is an issue where we need to improve. There is more interest than ever in connecting our farmers with better distribution systems.”
Such initiatives, however, face competition with other state programs vying for the same tax dollars. Voters are encouraged to see re-greening of food deserts as an immediate, high priority issue.
Some rural Chautauqua County grocery and convenience stores that have been selling fresh, local produce in their communities for years have complained that small town boards, struggling with rising costs and tax dilemmas themselves, are granting variances and building permits to chain stores with out-of-state headquarters and no local loyalties.
One rural storeowner said, asking not to be identified, “My town board gave a variance to an out-of-state chain store that will put me, their own hometown store, out of business. Then they’ll complain that our downtown has one more boarded-up, dark store and a brand new food desert. And besides, money that leaves town that way never comes back.”
How to Compete
“It is harder for independent stores to do bulk purchases than it used to be,” Mike Moss, owner of the Celoron Market, told the Gazette. With fewer fresh options to sell, neighborhood stores risk finding themselves with diminishing business and suddenly inside a food desert.
The large commercial suppliers of bread, baked goods and fresh milk, among other products, have stopped delivering to small stores that cannot buy entire truckloads in a single delivery. “The smaller, independent stores, like mine and a lot of others,” Mike said, “especially the ones out in the country, might place a $3,000 order once a month. The big box stores might order 10 times that much once or twice in a week. Guess who gets the business?”
“If they deliver to me at all – I’m what they call a ‘C-sized’ store – they charge me more and I have to pass that along to stay alive.”
One shopper’s response at Mike’s Celoron Market, however, illustrates a difference typically found only at local, community stores. “Mike…is a very nice person. He loves to help out the Celoron Community as much as possible, and I know that when I walk in the store, I will always be greeted with a smile and hello.”
“In the summertime, we’ll have lots of fresh strawberries, sweet corn, apples and all the best of the local growing season in Western New York and Northwestern PA,” said Dan Brown, Jamestown native and owner of FarmFresh Surfine in Jamestown. Massive shipments won’t keep long enough to sell unless it is harvested unripe in many cases. That can make the smaller, local stores winners in the battle against food deserts. “We buy and sell here as much as we can,” Brown said, “and we’re proud that it keeps more money right here in town.”
There is much more to learn. Jamestown Gazette readers are invited to visit http://chautauqua.cce.cornell.edu/ and click on the Chautauqua Grown tab. To know more about food deserts and the battle for food security, search on-line for the Food Access Research Atlas and the Food Environment Atlas of the US Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. See also the 2018 Farm Bill Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) Legislative Summary & Outline.