GARY, Ind. (AP) — Ashley Bradley, with her 2-year-old son Kareem Marcus in tow, couldn’t help but shake her head while walking past the food store closest to her home.
It’s less than a quarter of a mile away, so it’s convenient, but it has a limited product selection.
Fresh vegetables are hard to come by unless people go outside Gary’s Tarrytown neighborhood, she said. Then they have options.
“Noodles, hot dogs, that’s all they got,” Bradley, 28, said about the food store. “If people don’t say anything, they (store owners) won’t do better.”
For thousands of people living in Northwest Indiana and Chicago’s south suburbs, restricted access to nutritious, high-quality food is prevalent. The number of convenience stores or fast-food restaurants selling prepackaged and high-fat, high-salt prepared foods are far more plentiful and easier to get to than grocery stores or supermarkets. There are about 86,000 people, or more than 11 percent of the population, who live in areas of Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties where there is poor access to a supermarket or grocery store, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.
The proliferation of these “food deserts” concerns health officials, political leaders and people who advocate buying and eating locally produced food. They argue all people should have access to healthy food options.
Food deserts are considered areas where residents do not have easy, nearby access to affordable, nutritious food. They are often in neighborhoods and communities where a significant number of people earn low incomes. For example, locally there are food deserts in municipalities such as Burnham, Lake Station, Valparaiso and Michigan City.
Various groups and agencies including the USDA have different technical definitions of the term, which makes pinpointing food system deficiencies an inexact science. The federal agency published its first national assessment of food access limitations in 2009 and estimates 25.3 million people, or about 8 percent of U.S. residents, now live in a food desert.
Mari Gallagher, owner of Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group, a 6-year-old Chicago-based firm, said policymakers around the country use data on food deserts and other food-related issues in making decisions about where to invest resources, recruit grocery stores and drive policy decisions.
The concern over food deserts is mainly about families not getting proper nutrition; if families have a harder time getting to sources of healthful, affordable food, they may consume less of those foods, which could lead to poorer diets, said Alisha Coleman-Jensen, a sociologist from the USDA’s Economic Research Service. Research has not established a clear cause-and-effect relationship between food-store access and maladies such as obesity. But public health experts say healthful diets may help reduce risks of developing long-term illnesses such as hypertension and heart disease.
“I just think that with obesity being a concern and diet-related disease, these things have gotten a lot of play because of that,” said Shelly Ver Ploeg, an economist from the USDA’s Economic Research Service. “Obesity, you talk about the problems that could be associated with it. With money and people’s personal lives, that gets a lot of people motivated.”
Food deserts can arise in urban, suburban and rural communities, although the city of Gary appears to have the largest number of residents with poor access to food options in Northwest Indiana, according to USDA data.
In areas with poor access to fresh food, public transportation can be an equalizer in getting more people to grocery stores. Region bus transit systems including the Gary Public Transportation Corp. have been able to increase routes in recent years, which has helped to improve access to grocery stores.
“Food stores are considered a key generator,” David Wright, marketing director for Gary Public Transportation Corp., said about ridership. “Shopping is a strong reason for people to ride.”
East Chicago grocery store manager Melissa Diaz said her store can carry all the tomatoes, yucca and lettuce she wants, but people need to understand how to buy and prepare fresh produce.
At her family’s La Mexicana store, certain dessert and snack foods fly off the shelves — but the store’s healthful items do, too. Diaz said she has advised shoppers all vegetables aren’t healthful if they are prepared a certain way. She also said she has seen mothers let their young children drink pop, and she cautioned a diabetic that Sunny Delight isn’t the same as orange juice.
“I think a lot of people aren’t educated well enough to know what’s healthy,” Diaz said.
The Alandress Gardner community garden on Maryland Street near 19th Avenue in Gary has yielded greens, zucchini, yellow squash, strawberries and green beans in the last five years, said the Rev. Dwight Gardner, of Trinity Baptist Church. Gardner said a group of elders called the Village Keepers is mainly responsible for the garden’s upkeep. Their goal is not only to provide food but also to get people involved in community-building activities, he said.
One of the problems in Gary, Gardner said, is with the steep population decline, the vested interest store owners had in the community also declined. Thus, many people have had to look outside the city for their needs — grocery and otherwise.
Gallagher, of the Chicago consulting firm, said her advice to communities is to start looking for solutions on a block-by-block basis. Among the things cities and towns could draw from data is what stores are most important to an area. Municipalities then could figure out ways to keep the stores in business. Also, officials could get input from residents on what they want in the community.
“You can’t write off that there’s no market for healthy food,” Gallagher said. “In some cases, you need to do more to support and grow the market.”
But until that market grows and stores closest to her improve the variety of products, Bradley said she will spend her grocery dollars largely outside the city in nearby communities.
“A lot of people shop here; I don’t see it,” Gary’s Bradley said.