Food for thought – Bucks County food deserts

Bucks County has two food deserts – areas without access to fresh food – but a remedy is on the table. 

Bucks County food deserts

JACK FIRNENO / WIRE PHOTOS Bensalem and Bristol Townships are designated as food deserts. These areas are normally dotted with conveniences and restaurants rather than supermarkets and grocery stores selling fresh food and produce. Many experts believe the lack of fresh foods leads to unhealthy lifestyles.

In Bucks County, two areas are designated as food deserts: census tracts that, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), are “urban or rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food.”

According to data from the USDA, portions of Bensalem and Bristol Townships meet that description.

To qualify as a food desert, the poverty rate in a tract must be 20 percent or more, or the median family income less than 80 percent of the area’s rates. And, in urban areas, at least 500 people or a third of the population must live more than a mile from a fresh food source.

These are areas normally dotted with convenience stores and restaurants rather than supermarkets or grocery stores selling fresh food and produce. And, even if the exact relationship is unclear, many experts believe the lack of fresh foods leads to unhealthy lifestyles.

“There are about 100 research studies trying to exactly figure out that correlation between fresh food and obesity,” said Donna Leuchten, director of sustainable food systems for Uplift Solutions. “Overall research points to a relationship between healthy food access and fruit and vegetable consumption, and that neighborhoods without a supermarket have higher prevalence of obesity.”

Obesity has become a nationwide concern with local implications. Related conditions include stroke, diabetes and heart disease. Obese youth often exhibit key risk factors for heart disease later in life.

These are issues that hit close to home, according to St. Mary Medical Center in Langhorne. St. Mary’s 2013 Community Health Needs Assessment Plan named heart disease as the second-leading cause of death in its service area, and one in 10 adults has diabetes.

In this area, nearly 30 percent of the adult population is obese and a little more than one-third of them are overweight. The latter is slightly higher than both the state and national averages of 30.6 percent and 28.6 percent, respectively.

St. Mary’s service area includes both Bensalem and in Bristol Township, the two areas designated as food deserts. Both areas feature two factors that Leuchten said often contribute to food deserts: buyers who skew toward items with lower profit margins, and no “360 market.”

“Grocery stores often work on a 1-percent profit margin — a very slim margin,” she explained.

Stores rely on deli, produce and gourmet items to make up the bulk of their profit. In areas like Bensalem or Bristol, however, buyers steer more toward dry goods and other items with lower margins.

“Making that balance a little differently reduces that margin,” said Leuchten.

Bensalem and Bristol also have Street Road and Veterans Highway, respectively, isolating fragments of residential areas. While unfamiliar with these exact location, Letuchen noted that this is unappealing to a grocery store owner, who would want a location where customers could come from all directions.

That’s where Uplift, and its president, Jeff Brown, come in.

A fourth-generation grocer, Brown owns 11 ShopRites, two of which are in Lower Bucks County. Uplift is a nonprofit organization that works with grocery stores — including Brown’s — nationwide. A major facet of Uplift’s work is to bring grocery stores to underprivileged communities.

“Jeff has always had an interest in serving underserved communities,” explained  Leuchten. “His father owned stores in communities where he was the main source of fresh, healthy and affordable food.”

In Bucks, Brown addresses the food deserts while also working around the financial challenges of setting up shop in these areas. His nearby stores offer free grocery delivery, for instance.

On a larger scale, he co-wrote the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative (PA FFFI). In action between 2004 and 2010, the PA FFFI allocated more than $73 million in loans and $12 million in grants to help open grocery stores in underserved areas. Now, it’s a model for similar efforts nationwide.

But, merely getting the supermarkets in the areas may not be enough.

According to one new study, the new presence of fresh food in a desert thanks to the PA FFFI in general didn’t result in more people eating more fruits and vegetables or affect body mass index, which is the measure of body fat based on height and weight.

“The issue is whether improving food access changes consumption between baseline and follow-up,” said Stephen A. Matthews,  an associate professor in the Departments of Sociology, Anthropology, and Demography, Penn State University, in an email. “We find no evidence of the latter.”

Matthews noted that, when the only intervention in a food desert is opening a new store, it does not affect people’s dietary habits. In fact, the locations of food may not have as big an impact as other groups believe.

“Yes, the neighborhoods we studied lacked large grocery stores but participants were shopping at large grocery stores outside of their neighborhoods,” he said.

“I don’t deny that food deserts exist but I do question how they are defined and measured.”

If deserts are more ideological than geographical, then, there are still plenty of people in Bucks County willing to help fix the problem. As the executive director of the education center at Snipes Farm in Morrisville, for instance, Susan Snipes gears much of the farm’s educational programming toward helping young people know how to find healthy foods.

“Most of us are accepting of the premise that packaged or prepared food is what’s available instead of making it from scratch,” she explained.

This means using whole foods: homemade mashed potatoes instead of store-bought mixes, or oatmeal from the kernel rather than instant brands. Buying and making whole foods takes only a little longer to prepare than their instant counterparts, and is often less expensive than people believe.

“People freeze at the words ‘whole food’ because they think of an expensive supermarket,” said Snipes. “But that’s one of the fallacies people have. A lot of times just getting to the source of the food is cheaper.”

But, location is still important: Snipes said she was approached by Brown to get more whole foods to Bensalem and Bristol, but, “We couldn’t get the logistics to work.”

Snipes Farm also runs a community-supported agriculture program, where members can get fresh, locally grown food through the farm. But, they have to drive to the farm to get it.

At Uplift, Leuchten admits that the stores themselves are no panacea. “They’re the first and most important step, and beyond that there are services [needed] to make the impact in the community.”

That’s why Uplift also coordinates nutrition education programs, health clinics and community outreach in food deserts. Community impact also drives Snipes to reach out to kids, before they become unhealthy adults: “It’s to give kids real experiences with real foods and understand how to make good choices.”

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