Inside A Food Desert

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So often when we look at America's weight problem it's seen as a series of choices: if people just choose fruits and vegetables over fried food and fat that would solve the problem. But millions of Americans live in places where access to fresh food simply doesn't exist, including thousands in northeast Ohio.

Warrix: many neighborhoods in Cleveland, and this is a new term, food deserts.
Eric: food deserts.
Warrix: and they're areas in many urban and even rural areas where maybe one grocery store that has very high prices is the only place a consumer can shop at.

Marisa Warrix is an educator with the OSU extension in Cuyahoga County. These so called food deserts are scattered throughout the city. She says Slavic Village, Glenville and Kinsman neighborhoods have the most serious problem.

Warrix: In the Kinsman neighborhood, 50% of the residents don't own cars. So it makes it very difficult for them to get to a suburban location where there are more grocery stores available with more competitive prices.

Then there are other neighborhoods where no grocery stores exist at all.

{sound of car}
Brancatelli: From 55th headed north we're going to go a mile and there will be no grocery stores in any of this residential area.

Councilman Tony Brancatelli represents Cleveland's Slavic Village neighborhood. We pass what's left of businesses that have pulled out long ago. All that remains are weathered signs out front.

Brancatelli: What used to be stores on virtually every corner, a very walking district. Those stores have closed.

It's not like there aren't food choices here. There's a KFC, MacDonalds, and Mr. Hero. There are also corner stores that sell alcohol, tobacco, and mainly processed foods. There's just very little healthy food. For residents who want fresh fruits and vegis the options are slim especially for those who don't own cars.

Rembert: Many name is Annie Rembert and my age is 85.

Rembert lives in a low income apartment complex for seniors just off of Broadway. Dave's the nearest full service supermarket is a couple of miles away. She and her neighbors used to take the free community circulator there all the time. But late last year that service went away in a round of RTA cuts.

Rembert: There aint no bus that goes to Dave's no more. I have to pay someone to take me.

Rembert, who lives on a very limited income, says she pays a driver $10-$20 to take her on the short trip. Her neighbor Yvonne Richmond says technically it is possible to get to Dave's by bus...but....

Richmond: Fleet to miles, catch the 50, go to Harvard, walk up to Dave's and can't carry but so much.

What's ironic is that places called food deserts have among the highest rates of obesity in the country. Dr. Leona Cuttler is director of the center for child health and policy and Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital.

Cuttler: there's a lot of data that people who live in food deserts have a higher likelihood of being obese than people who live in neighborhoods that actually have access to groceries and fresh food.

As Cleveland's population has shrunk, so have the number of full service supermarkets. There are two chains that remain very active in the city -- Dave's and Save-A-Lot. Dave's declined to comment for this story, but a Vice President with Save-A-Lot did speak with us. Rick Meyer says the St. Louis based chain specifically looks for low income neighborhoods when deciding where to open a store.

Meyer: Our research indicates that in America today, 45 percent of household incomes are 40 thousand or less. That's a significant market share. We also find that many of those neighborhoods are abandoned by the conventional grocer.

If Save-A-Lot sees opportunity in the inner city, why don't other grocers? Giant Eagle declined to comment, but Jeff Heinan of the Heinan's supermarket chain explains his company's rationale. Heinan says that the margins in the grocery business are razor thin and he can't afford to make a multi million dollar investment that might not pan out --building an inner city store with its smaller footprint is a whole new business model.

Heinan: We believe lots of different grocers have gotten into trouble trying to run multiple formats. If there's a site in downtown Cleveland or anywhere for that matter that's 15-thousand square feet, it requires an entirely different way of thinking.

The food desert issue has garnered attention on a national scale. The Obama administration has pledged 400-million dollars to help attract grocers to under served areas in the form of tax breaks, low interest loans and other incentives. Pennsylvania has done just that. Mark Winne is the author of Closing the Food Gap. He says Pennsylvania's Fresh Food Financing Initiative could serve as a national model.

Winne: It's developed over 70 supermarkets both in rural and urban areas and along the way was the creation of 45 hundred new jobs.

{sound of car}

Attracting a full service supermarket can be a slow, arduous process. Across the city of Cleveland there are many smaller efforts underway aimed at increasing access to fresh food right away. One of those is the Cleveland Corner store Project which offers fresh fruits and vegetables to convenience stores at below market prices.

{sound of car}

I'm headed to Johnny's Beverage on E. 65th street with councilman Tony Brancatelli. Owner Jerome Jackson has begun selling a limited selection of fresh fruits and vegitables. Brancatelli is checking in to make sure he's keeping these foods in stock.

Brancatelli: We'll find out {sound of car door opening and we walk in}

In the front is a shelf of chips and pre-packaged donuts. But behind that shelf is another that has a modest selection of fruit.

Brancatelli: Ah...this is exactly what we're talking about. It's that balance having apples next to snacks. We're moving a step closer.

In Slavic Village there are a growing number of farmers markets and community gardens -- but these are small oases in the larger food desert. There is widespread agreement among health policy experts that these small grassroots efforts aren't enough. The real challenge is bringing full service supermarkets to these neighborhoods, and to the people who need them.

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