Spring has finally sprung — maybe — and with it the promise of fresh local fruit and vegetables — for some.
Food deserts throughout Schenectady are as barren as ever. But a coordinated effort to change that has wrapped up its study phase and has begun its solutions phase.
Schenectady County has published its Healthy And Equitable Food Action Plan, the result of a multiyear effort to measure and assess the problem of poor nutrition in and around the city. The effort focused on food deserts — neighborhoods whose residents don’t have access to fresh and/or healthy food because they can’t afford it or because they don’t have easy transportation to places where it is sold.
Entities ranging from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the New York state health commissioner and county health officials to neighborhood activists have identified several Schenectady neighborhoods as food deserts: The Northside, Downtown, Bellevue, Hamilton Hill and Vale.
It has been noted that “food desert” is a bit of a misnomer. “Food swamp” or “nutrition desert” might be more accurate; there’s plenty of food and drink for sale in food deserts, it’s just not healthy fare, such as fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Instead, foods heavy in salt, sugar and saturated fat are sold in abundance and at full price. Higher-than-average rates of obesity, heart disease and diabetes also are common in such areas.
Schenectady County spokesman Joe McQueen said the study phase is complete. The focus now is on solutions.
There is not yet a list of specific plans, like organizing a food co-op or starting a shuttle bus for shoppers or tweaking nutritional benefits programs.
But a couple of measures for which there was a glaring need were implemented even before the study phase was complete, McQueen said: Bethesda House opened a new food pantry in October in the city’s worst food desert, the Northside. And the county Public Health Services in November launched Food4Schdy, a mobile phone app that points users toward the nearest food pantries, meal programs or retailers accepting SNAP benefits.
Other remedies are in the works.
Many strategies have been employed to eliminate food deserts or counter their effects nationwide:
- Earlier this month, an eight-year effort by community activists culminated in the opening of a new Price Rite in Syracuse, with $2.4 million in public grants and tax breaks defraying the $5 million cost.
- New York City runs its Green Cart program, under which individuals buy carts, obtain permits and peddle fresh produce in selected neighborhoods; the Bronx is specifically targeted, as it is the city’s poorest and most obese borough.
- A mobile food market was created by refitting a municipal transit bus in Halifax last summer. The test was modeled on similar programs in Ottawa and Toronto; it worked so well in Halifax’s food deserts that a cold-weather pilot project was undertaken over the winter.
- Pop-up farmers markets are regularly set up at busy mass transit stops in Dayton, Ohio; Tampa, Florida; and Atlanta, Georgia.
- A new community co-op recently opened in Greensboro, North Carolina, and one is being created in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
- A Los Angeles project puts hard-to-employ people to work diverting edible food from the waste stream and creating meals for the needy.
- A public-private partnership in California offers loans and grants to grocers who build or expand in underserved areas.
- Community vegetable gardens continue to proliferate nationwide, anywhere there’s good soil and someone willing to organize and run a program.
Fixing food deserts — even quantifying them — is complicated. The Schenectady County Healthy And Equitable Food Action Plan was created by large working groups over the course of years using thousands of data points and survey questions.
There are multiple root causes of poor nutrition, within food deserts and elsewhere, including the fact that healthy food is more expensive than unhealthy food, or is perceived to be; shoppers’ difficulty getting to a store with a good selection of fresh produce; ignorance of what constitutes good nutrition; and ignorance of the consequences of poor nutrition.
Rachel Curtis, director of the Summer Lunch Program, on July 10, 2015. (Photo: Peter R. Barber)
State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker traveled to Schenectady earlier this month as part of National Public Health Week. After he honored the Schenectady Inner City Ministry for creating a model food pantry promoting healthy choices on its shelves, he pointed out the environment in which SICM operates.
“Schenectady is in many ways a food desert,” he said.
It’s hard to single out one cause for that, he added.
“Money is always a challenge,” Zucker said. “Education as well.”
The SICM pantry helps address both, he said, providing good food to people who can’t afford it and showing them how to do better for themselves and their families by way of diet.
“I think that this helps to tackle this problem,” Zucker said. “If people are unaware of the risks of their behavior, they’re going to repeat it.”
As the county seeks solutions, some steps are being taken at the state level:
- The state Council on Hunger and Food Policy, chaired by Agriculture and Markets Commissioner Richard Ball, is working to establish a permanent focus on fighting hunger in the state while improving nutrition and availability of fresh local food in food deserts.
- The state has expanded the eligibility requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, providing an additional 750,000 families the opportunity to participate.
- The FreshConnect Checks program encourages SNAP participants to use their benefits to buy fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers markets with a $2 incentive for every $5 in SNAP benefits used in that way.
- The Farmers Market Nutrition Program provides greater food access for low-income New Yorkers by providing checks to redeem for produce at participating farmers markets and farm stands.
- The Farm to Foodbank tax credit, enacted with the 2017-2018 state budget, lets farmers write off 25 percent of their donations of fresh produce to food pantries.
THE RETAIL VIEW
The Rev. Phil Grigsby, executive director of SICM, said the imbalance becomes obvious by looking at a map of the county: suburbs dotted with supermarkets surrounding a city nearly barren of them.
“The whole area has too many grocery stores; it’s saturated,” he said. “But the city has only one full-service supermarket. Access to food is difficult.”
He added: “What a lot of people do is, once a month, they hire a cab and go to Walmart.”
This is inconvenient and, for people of limited means, terribly expensive.
The one full-service supermarket Grigsby referred to is the Price Chopper on Eastern Avenue. (There is also an Aldi and a Price Rite on the southern edge of Schenectady.)
Price Chopper spokeswoman Mona Golub said the company is committed to stores in urban areas — it also has supermarkets in Albany, Cohoes, Glens Falls, Gloversville, Johnstown, Mechanicville, Saratoga Springs, Troy and Watervliet — but the company can’t build one in every neighborhood of every city.
Building, staffing and operating a supermarket is an expensive proposition, and if the site isn’t chosen well, the store may be a money-loser.
Addressing the other aspect of food deserts — poor nutrition — is easier, and it’s a task Price Chopper undertakes vigorously. For starters, as with other supermarket chains, the point of entry in many Price Chopper and Market 32 stores feeds right into a huge, well-stocked produce department.
Anna Fulton Miles and SICM Community Garden gardener Iva Gay on July 20, 2016. (Photo: Marc Schultz)
Price Chopper/Market 32 also uses the NuVal system, which attaches a numerical rating to the nutritional value of food items. The higher the number, the better the food — so it’s easy to swim through dozens of brands of cereal in the cereal aisle, for example, and spot which ones are the healthier choices.
Also, Golub said there’s an ongoing effort to show shoppers how to turn healthy ingredients into good meals.
“We are constantly putting together recipes that are not only easy to prepare with few ingredients … they offer tips for creating healthy meals.”
Schenectady’s Northside neighborhood may be short on fruit and vegetable shopping options, but it does have one of the best places in the region for carnivores to shop: Avon Market.
Owner Marvin Cohen, semi-retired after six decades at the butcher shop, said Avon’s large selection of meats keeps it going after 80 years.
“We have everything. If you want a pig’s head, we can get it,” he said.
The range of selection also means the bulk of his customers are driving from a distance for something specific, rather than walking down Van Vranken Avenue to fulfill everyday needs. But those who do walk in find things they can afford.
“I guess that’s why we’re still here; we’re priced reasonable,” Cohen said.
Avon is a small specialty market with a specialty niche. Small, general goods stores that sell everything from soup to nuts have a harder time competing with the lower prices and wider selection of a supermarket chain.
That, Cohen said, is at least part of the reason there aren’t any small grocery markets left in many neighborhoods.
WHAT IS A FOOD DESERT?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food deserts as lower-income areas where there is no supermarket or other large grocery retailer nearby. “Nearby” can be one-half or one mile in urban areas, depending on the calculation being used, and it can be 10 or 20 miles in rural areas.
In Schenectady, the one-mile calculation identifies the Northside and Downtown neighborhoods as food deserts. The half-mile calculation adds the Bellevue, Hamilton Hill and Vale neighborhoods.
The following potential steps to shrink food deserts and reduce poor nutrition were listed in the Schenectady County Healthy and Equitable Food Action Plan:
- Incentivize healthier food choices by consumers.
- Urge retailers to increase signage promoting healthier food choices.
- Urge retailers to put less-healthy food and beverages in less-trafficked areas of stores.
- Engage people to make healthy choices where they work, play, worship and learn.
- Organize neighborhood-based activities to engage families.
- Ask libraries to sponsor food literacy events.
- Explore options for sharing vehicles, using volunteers, etc. to develop low-cost transportation alternatives.
- Advocate with neighborhood-based markets, drug stores, etc. to increase their inventory of healthier food options.
- Expand access to fresh produce through programs like Capital Roots’ Veggie Mobile and Virtual Veggie Mobile.
- Establish satellite or mobile food pantries in underserved neighborhoods.
- Coordinate food pantry schedules to increase availability during evenings and weekends.
- Co-locate food assistance services with medical and social services.
- Increase coordination between pantries and fresh food sources.
- Educate farmers and retailers about the benefits of donating food and engaging in initiatives that increase access to healthier food.
- Explore the potential for using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to cover the cost of transportation to markets and for home delivery services.
FOOD PANTRY FACTOID
Schenectady County Public Health Services, with assistance from Cornell Cooperative Extension, surveyed 305 clients at five Schenectady food pantries in 2015. It found:
- 74 percent were obese, based on their body mass index;
- 68 percent had one or more chronic conditions, such as diabetes, high cholesterol or hypertension;
- 61 percent to 75 percent needed low-sodium or low-fat or low-sugar foods to address their health conditions.