State Shopping For Grocers

The Director of Development for Vinton County, Terri Fetherolf, says there isn't one single grocery store in her entire county in southern Ohio.

"We're a very rural county with a very small population and few employment opportunities. When Super Value came to McArthur, the county seat, in 1986, it was one of the top ten employers in the county, providing 36 people with jobs. After one of the supermarket owners passed away in 2007 and a windstorm destroyed $87,000 worth of inventory in 2012, the remaining owner was forced to sell the Super Value to Dollar General."

Fetherolf says that Dollar General doesn't sell fresh food. So to get fresh fruits and vegetables from a grocery store, she says county residents must drive 25 miles. And those without a car often go without fresh fruits and vegetables. Dan Saltzman, the President of Dave's Markets in Northeast Ohio, understands the challenge well from the retailer's side of the situation. He says grocery stores have very small profit margins…about one percent of total sales per year. Saltzman says his stores in low income areas are barely hanging on, especially in light of recent cuts to the food stamp program.

"Food stamps were cut last November 7% across the board. So when you have a store that does 40% sales in food stamps and you take a 7% cut in people's ability in those areas to buy food, the math doesn't work in a one percent business. It's devastating."

Health officials say there's something else that's devastating…..the health of people who live in that area where they can't access good quality, non-processed foods. Mary Chace, a Public Health Professor at Wright State University, says Ohio's high infant mortality rate is affected by this lack of healthy foods but that's not all.

"This lack of access to healthy food is a public health crisis. We have an alarming rate of Ohio's childhood obesity right now. We are among the highest in the country. This is nothing to be proud of. We have 30% of Ohio's children overweight or obese. In some communities, it is up to 60%."

About 50 health officials, community and state leaders have been looking into this problem and have come up with a way to address it. They want a public private partnership to bring in stores to those under served areas. Caroline Harries of the Food Trust says Pennsylvania saw great success with collaboration like this.

"So a 30 million commitment from state government leveraged over 120 million in supermarket and other healthy food retail investment in the state."

The Ohio Healthy Food Financing Task Force is asking Ohio to make a similar investment in the Buckeye State. Terri Fetherolf wishes it would for the future of Vinton county.

"And since grocery stores serve as the anchors for the economic vitality of the community, the county is concerned that other centrally located businesses will now leave the community too."

Members of the task force are hoping lawmakers will allocate 30 million dollars in the budget for the grocery store initiative as it goes through the legislative process. They say doing so can help save the state money and create jobs. But most of all, they say it can help save lives.

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