Case Study Aims to Find New Ways to Tackle Cleveland Food Deserts

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Some 36% of residents in Cuyahoga County live in a food desert, according to recent data out of Cuyahoga County Board of Health. People living in food deserts often reside half a mile or more away from a supermarket and typically lack access to healthy foods like fresh fruit and vegetables.

A new study out of Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine examines the ways people living in these neighborhoods make choices about buying food. Researchers evaluated food deserts in Cleveland and Columbus, focusing particularly on Cleveland’s St. Clair Superior neighborhood. They found that more than 40% of the population in food deserts lived below the federal poverty line, and over 70% identified as a racial or ethnic minority.

The study found that often the only healthy options in food deserts were canned vegetables, 100 percent juice, and diet soda, says Darcy Freedman, associate professor at the Department of Population and Quantitative Health Science at CWRU School of Medicine and a researcher who worked on the study.

“In the neighborhoods that we evaluated in Cleveland and Columbus, the most commonly available stores, none of them sold healthy products like whole wheat bread or low-fat baked good products. And less than one in ten sold a fresh fruit or vegetable,” said Freedman.

Roger Sikes at the Cuyahoga County Board of Health says one example of a food desert intervention based on community needs is the recent opening of Simon’s Supermarket in Euclid. They offer affordable healthy vegetables like collard greens and a wide selection of meat options for protein.

“It really reflects the desires of residents in those neighborhoods,” said Sikes. “And also just building trust with the store owner. Being able to shake the owner’s hand and have dialogue with him I think was very important, one in helping the store to be successful, but also building more community ownership.”

Working with the community is integral in moving forward on a solution, says Euclid resident Kandace Jones, who’s worked on projects in her neighborhood to address the food desert.

“You could put a store in there, but if it’s not meeting the needs of the community, it’s not going to do well and thrive,” said Jones.

The researchers plan to track the targeted Cleveland food deserts for the next year as part of their project to identify how residents’ dietary habits change along with efforts to reduce food deserts through opening new supermarkets.

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