Poverty can be both expensive and hazardous to your health. That’s especially so for people in one of the nation’s so-called urban food deserts.
For them, beer, cigarettes, and chips are often easier to get at neighborhood convenience stores than fresh fruit and vegetables. It’s even more true for the nearly 14 percent of Toledo households, mostly in poor central-city neighborhoods, that don’t have vehicles.
Lack of access to fresh produce is not unique to Toledo. The problem is found in most medium and large cities, including Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago — any city with neighborhoods that are miles from supermarkets that carry a variety of reasonably priced fresh foods. Food deserts encourage local residents to rely on cheap fast food and unhealthy preprocessed food that is low in nutritional value and high in calories.
Small convenience stores that dot central-city neighborhoods do not, in general, offer a variety of fresh produce. They also charge more for what they do carry. Liquor, corner, or party stores may charge $5 for a box of corn flakes or 65 cents for a single cigarette, often called a “loosie.”
The Toledo-Lucas County Health Department is taking a small but important step to get corner stores to become part of the solution. The department is using part of a $110,000 grant from the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to help local stores promote and sell fresh fruit and vegetables. The grant is also used for other public health efforts, such as encouraging students to walk to school.
The Saveway Market on Broadway was the first to sign up for the Healthy Corner Store initiative last year, followed by the Stop & Go store on Broadway and, most recently, its store on Arlington. Health Department dietitians visited stores and offered samples of healthful foods.
Store partners did not make dramatic changes. They could be as simple as placing a stand with fresh fruit and vegetables in a more prominent spot in the store. Saveway Market, for example, reported a 50 percent increase in produce sales, partly by moving fruit and vegetables to the front of the store.
The Arlington Stop & Go placed a tall display of fruit directly in front of the checkout counter. That was enough to encourage some kids to switch from honey buns and doughnuts to bananas, apples, and oranges.
Tony Maziarz, the coordinator of the health department’s Creating Healthy Communities initiative, is encouraging stores that participate in the federal Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program to feature fresh fruit and vegetables instead of canned produce. Such efforts not only increase the availability of healthy food, but also raise public awareness of its importance.
Store owners such as Tim Ridi of Stop & Go will determine much of the success of the Healthy Corner Store program. If fresh produce does well, he plans to expand the program to all 37 stores he and his family own in the Toledo area, even though profit margins on produce are small. These public effort efforts should be applauded and encouraged, especially when public assistance such as food stamps is cut.
Still, Lucas County, working with the city of Toledo and state and federal governments, could do much more. It could donate land to encourage local nonprofit groups to plant neighborhood gardens, and help to create mobile farmers’ markets, perhaps using donated Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority buses. The city could start by determining which neighborhoods are most isolated from fresh produce vendors.
More than one in three people in Lucas County is obese, the CDC reports. Many suffer the costly and debilitating health problems that accompany obesity.
City and county leaders, including Toledo Mayor-elect D. Michael Collins, need to ensure that more local residents understand the importance of healthy diets, and can get the fresh produce they need to sustain them.
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