Efforts underway to eliminate 'food deserts'

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Capital News Service
LANSING— A number of Michigan counties have fewer healthy food outlets than the national average, a new study shows.
The overall percentage of counties’ access to healthy foods in the state is 73 percent, while the national benchmark is 92 percent, according to County Health Rankings, complied by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.
Access to healthy foods is measured as the percent of ZIP codes in a county with a healthy food outlet, meaning a grocery store or farmers market.
For example, Clare County has 100 percent access to healthy foods because it has four ZIP codes with at least one healthy food outlet each.
But other counties such as Jackson, Grand Traverse, Washtenaw, Alpena, Gladwin, Cheboygan and Marquette fall below the 92 percent benchmark.
Jennifer Holton, a public information officer at the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, said some low- and moderate-income urban and rural areas have limited access to grocery stores and are known as “food deserts.”
According to the Michigan Farmers Market Association, there were roughly 220 farmers markets in the state in 2010. Holton said the number for 2011 will be released in June.
“Some studies show that there are pockets of underserved areas throughout the Southeast Michigan region, and some area communities have inadequate access to traditional grocery stores due to the location of the store or the long distance required to travel to the store,” Holton said.
Some neighborhoods in Detroit lack full-service grocery store with fresh foods and healthy options, according to a report by the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. (DEGC).
The report said many factors negatively impact urban grocery store development, including increased business costs, inadequate financing, lack of accurate market information and real and perceived development costs.
Robert Rossbach, a communication officer at the DEGC, said the corporation’s Green Grocer Project aims to stimulate renewed investment in Detroit neighborhoods while improving fresh food access for residents.
Sarah Fleming, program manager of the Green Grocer Project, said the report was conducted in 2008, “but the situation is still similar now. It still needs more grocery stores and farmers markets to help residents be more accessible to fresh food.”
DEGC initiated the Green Grocer Project in May 2010.
“We helped a lot of stores with their operation since 2010, and what we hope to see is that the operation was improved and stores do a better job and the residents will not go to other communities’ stores to shop for fresh food.
“They can get the goods they need and it will demonstrate to new grocers that there’s a market for grocery stores. Hopefully it can help us attract new grocery stores to neighborhoods which are underserved right now,” Fleming said.
Fleming said the project has three programs: technical assistance, funding assistance and grocer clearinghouse.
“Five technical assistance grants totally $150,000 for existing grocers were for customer service training, marketing and other improvements in operations,” she said.
The grants are from the Kresge Foundation, the City of Detroit’s federal Community Developmet Block Grant and Detroit Economic Growth Association.
She said five grocers are waiting for funds and the project will try to raise more money to help more grocers.
Four grocers have received $100,000 to $200,000 each in funding assistance.
She said the project helped eight or nine grocers with the Grocer Clearinghourse Program last year, providing advice about permitting, zoning, site selection, funding options and other tools to benefit their business.
As for efforts to attract new stores, Fleming said one will open this summer in the midtown neighborhood with a loan and technical assistance grant from DEGC.
© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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