April 21 2010 12:00 AM

New data shed light on local food disparities



The words hunger and obesity may seem contradictory, but new research shows that lack of access to food can be a factor in both.

The Food Research and Action Center, a nonprofit group focused on hunger and nutrition policy, recently released a study that found 15.3 percent of residents in Michigan’s 8th Congressional District had in the last 12 months lacked enough money to buy food. The 8th Congressional District includes Ingham County. Out of the 30 worst districts in the country, two of them are in Michigan. Michigan ranks 22nd in the country in terms of food insecurity from 2006 to 2008.

When talking about hunger in America, the problem is less of death by starvation and more about availability. What is often the scenario is a family or individual will choose the cheapest food option available by both actual cost and transportation cost.

It can also be the case that availability of affordable, healthy food is very limited or not easily accessible to an individual. An area like this is known as a food desert.

The lack of healthy, affordable food leads directly to unhealthy diets and nutritional diseases.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2007 27.8 percent to 29.1 percent of Ingham County’s population was considered obese — a body mass index of 30 or higher. It also reports the prevalence of obesity between 2006 and 2008 in lowincome, preschool-aged children was between 10 percent to 15 percent.

Ask Marcus Cheatham, the Ingham County Health Department’s public information officer, whether the numbers correspond with the area being a food desert and he will answer, “That does. Absolutely.”

Cheatham explains chronic diseases like heart disease are the biggest killers in the country and are spread unevenly throughout income brackets. Chronic diseases affect low-income populations in food deserts more, he said.

Joy Baldwin is trying to bring nutrition into Lansing’s desert. Baldwin oversees the Corner Store Produce Project, overseen by NorthWest Initiative, a Lansing nonprofit. The program brings in fresh, organic produce from local farmers and offers it for sale inside select Quality Dairy stores at competitive prices. The program began four years ago at the Quality Dairy at 500 E. Saginaw St. Since then, it has grown to three other stores.

The produce is on sale late May through September. Baldwin would like to offer produce year long, but that would undermine one of its goals.

“If we were available to make it year-round, we would have to abandon the localness,” Baldwin said.

NorthWest Initiative is not the only organization trying to promote fresh, healthy and local options in Lansing’s desert.

Terry Link, executive director of the Greater Lansing Food Bank, knows all too well the options available in the area.

“Clearly one of the pressure points (with donations) is that the food we have access to — low cost, free — is highly processed,” Link said.

Link explains being limited to food donations and charity can make it difficult to distribute fresh food when trying to make a dollar stretch.

“You have to trade off one problem for another,” he said.

Link also points out access and money are not the only issues leading low-income populations to become food insecure.

Some may not have a good basis of nutritional education or know how to prepare raw foods.

The food bank offers vouchers for fresh produce and dairy, which allows a person to pick the produce or dairy they would like, hopefully making them more likely to eat it. L&L Food Centers, Aldi and some food co-ops accept the vouchers.

The food bank has also helped start 70 community gardens in Ingham, Eaton and Clinton counties, with the bulk in Ingham County.

The food bank is also working on a trial program with local farmers to have them grow fresh produce for the food bank.

But yet one more thing can still specifically help food deserts and Ingham County residents become food secure: building more full-service grocery stores.

Public Act 231 of 2008 offers a taxincentive to any business wishing to expand, improve or open a full-service grocery store in an underserved area. The incentive allows stores to make improvements tax-free for up to 10 years.

To be eligible, a building must be used primarily as a supermarket, with 75 percent of the property — based on square footage — devoted to nontaxable items typically sold in grocery stores. This is to weed out small convenience stores that sell an apple or two to get the tax breaks.

The store must be located in a low or moderate-income population with a below-average number of grocery stores, 50 percent of its population must live in a low-income census tract and barriers must exist that make it hard for residents to travel the distances needed to get to the nearest grocery store.

With this definition, 55.7 percent of Ingham County qualifies for the incentive, according to 2000 census data. Most of the qualifying areas are in and surrounding Lansing but large stretches of rural land on the edges of Ingham County also qualify.

The program just recently opened to accept applications. Although this tax-incentive could largely address Lansing’s food desert, Terry Stanton, of the state Department of Treasury, said no applications have been filed in Ingham County.