Nation’s Supermarkets Fall Short of Promise to Combat ‘Food Deserts,’ Including Many in Beaver County

By Kyle Lawson

Beaver County Times

Aliquippa resident Taishawn Harris said she’s satisfied with the selection and prices at the new Aldi store on Shaffer Road. The challenge is getting there.

“It’s affordable, and they have enough produce,” said Harris, 40, as she waited for her ride on a December evening with a cart full of groceries. “But I definitely wouldn’t walk here, I’d have to get a cab.”

Aliquippa is among thousands of areas nationwide the federal government has classified as “food deserts,” based on the poverty level and access to a supermarket.

In conjunction with Michelle Obama’s healthy food initiatives, major retailers promised in 2011 to open or expand 1,500 markets in and around food deserts by 2016, but by their own count are far short.

The nation’s top 75 food retailers opened nearly 10,300 stores in new locations from 2011 to the first quarter of 2015, of which 2,434 were grocery stores. But only about 250 were in food deserts.

Beaver Falls, Vanport Township, Ambridge, Midland, Pulaski Township, and sections of Monaca and Freedom are located within food deserts in Beaver County, according to a formula administered by the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Treasury, and Health and Human Services.

An urban town qualifies as a food desert if the poverty rate is at least 20 percent and at least 500 people live more than one mile from a supermarket. A rural town qualifies if the poverty rate is at least 20 percent and more than 500 people live more than 10 miles from a grocery store, according to the agriculture department website.

With limited options, people living in food deserts often get meals from fast-food restaurants and gas stations, which increases their chances of diabetes and other health issues, according to USDA research.

And because refined foods are addictive, the challenge not only is providing raw vegetables and meat but also educating people on healthy eating habits, said Dr. Conan Shaw, a clinical nutritionist based in Cranberry Township.

“There are communities where people are eating to stay alive, but not to maintain good health,” Shaw said. “So entire communities are predisposed to a disease state.”

Besides diabetes, refined foods are linked to heart disease, cholesterol hypertension and inflammation throughout the body.

While there are healthy options in Beaver Falls at a small market and a discount grocery store, distance and cost often are deterring factors for low-income residents, city Director of Community Development Bethany Williams said.

“There’s been kind of a food revolution, as people have recognized a lack of options,” Williams said.

Leading the charge is Fellowship Foods, based in Monaca.

The company delivers produce from nearby farms to three drop-off locations in Beaver Falls, one in Monaca, and to other areas in Beaver and Allegheny counties.

“It’s as affordable as possible, with locally grown produce,” Williams said.

In towns without drop-off locations, federal grants are available for community partnerships with a sound plan to provide fresh foods, according to the USDA website.

Though federal grants are easier said than received, Beaver County Salvation Army Major Richard Lyle said.

“It’s a very difficult process that doesn’t bear much fruit,” Lyle said. “Anytime you deal with federal government, with all of the hoops you have to jump through, it’s not easy.”

The federal government also has invested $400 million to provide tax breaks for major supermarket retailers. But the incentive so far has been outweighed by the financial challenges of turning a profit in poverty stricken communities.

A large customer base on food stamps creates a rush of business in the beginning of the month when food stamps are issued, and a drop off at the end of the month, according to the Food Marketing Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group for food retailers.

The group also said insurance and security are more costly in neighborhoods perceived to have high crime rates.

But the fact national retailers and government officials are having the discussion is a step in the right direction, Shaw said.

“It’s good that people are acknowledging it,” he said. “We also need to educate people on how to prepare real food.”

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