Lansing: A food desert in need of growth

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A National Health Crisis

Rising obesity rates and lack of access to healthy foods have made Lansing an example of the health crisis in the United States.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, many parts of Lansing are considered food deserts — areas where, for the majority of residents, there is limited access to healthy food on their budget.

Registered dietitian Jennie Hahn said there should be  concern for those children being raised in food deserts.

“If you think about school lunches and the vending machines you find at schools – the kids just aren’t surrounded by the healthy options they need,” Hahn said.

There are other factors that are contributing to the decline in health of Lansing residents.

Obesity and a poor diet can lead to many other health issues. Especially for children, these health concerns must be confronted early in order to prevent long-term damage.

“The early onset of diseases associated with being overweight are the biggest concerns, so high blood pressures, high blood sugars, type-two diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and high cholesterol,” said Hahn of many concerns raised by obesity. “So, just kids who are really unhealthy plus the psychological side of that of being depressed.”

Today’s society values conveniency, with fast-food restaurants more common than grocery stores. The accessibility of unhealthy food makes poor diet choices much more common, especially when the prices of these options are low, compared to travel costs and higher prices in grocery stores.

See comparative maps of grocery stores and chain restaurants in Lansing:

Grocery Stores

Chain Restaurants

Hahn said the high prices of healthy foods is another concern.

“It shouldn’t be easier for a kid to get a bag of chips than an apple,” said Hahn. “It needs to change that the community is more inclined to reach for junk food than produce, but most families just can’t afford the better food.”

For Lansing resident Dan Kuchuk, there is much to be desired in terms of food options.

“I think Lansing is kind of limited, in my opinion,” said Kuchuk. “I can’t really think of a grocery store downtown for people that live here.”

Beyond prices and accessibility, the sheer ingredients with which many food products are made have impacted the overall health of many communities, including Lansing. Sugar is one ingredient which has had a huge effect, Hahn said.

“Probably one of the biggest contributions would just be the amount of added sugar in different products,” said Hahn. “If you look at how much sugar is in one soda compared to how much sugar kids should consume in one day, often drinking a can of pop means consuming more sugar in one sitting than the kid should in a day.”

Caitlin Schneider, the manager of Urbandale Farm in Lansing, said she believes that a key to improving health is understanding the importance of food.

“It’s important for people to understand what is involved in producing food and have access to that food and be able to see and kind of take ownership over the means of production,” said Schneider. “And I think personally that starts for me with my children. I want them to be able to know what it takes to make the food and where it comes from and why we are choosing to eat this food in this way.”

Registered Dietitian and Certified Sports Dietitian Kate Davis also believes in the importance of educating kids on food.

“I think the other problem, more of a big picture impact on the community, is when you look at kids and they look at how do we create good healthy eating habits in children, and one of the big pieces is their exposure to that food,” said Davis. “Eating that food, seeing that food in the household, and in a food desert essentially that food is not being brought into the house when they are going to convenience stores – or wherever they are able to get food close to their house – most of these places are not going to stock that type of food.”

For Lansing resident Evan Shoup, it is the limited options offered in grocery stores that make him the most frustrated.

“I try to eat well but sometimes the fruit and stuff in the grocery store just isn’t even fresh anymore. I wish there was more to pick from because I would do a lot better job with being healthy if there were,” said Shoup.


Is Lansing a food desert?

Many parts of Lansing are considered to be food deserts by the United States Department of Agriculture. Food deserts are areas where the majority of residents have to travel long distances to purchase fresh produce within their budget.

According to a map from the USDA online food desert atlas, much of Lansing falls into the category of having low-income residents who are not within ten to twenty miles of access to healthy food.

Hahn said that food deserts pose a particular challenge for residents to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

“The environment is so hard to maneuver, and healthy choices are especially hard to find,” said Hahn.

Shoup, who does most of his grocery shopping in Lansing, thinks that Lansing is a good example of a food desert.

“I would say that it is a food desert, just because it is so hard to find good things to eat here, I guess. There just isn’t a lot to choose from, and you have to go pretty far to find what you want,” said Shoup.

Davis also said that urban food deserts cause a challenge for many people, as transportation can be one factor for not having access to healthy food.

“When you think about the practicality of people being able to get good healthy food, sometimes people don’t have reliable transportation, or for whatever reason are not able to travel long distances,” said Davis. “So it’s a situation where if they don’t have the type of good healthy food closeby, they will instead go to the closest food option. So, like I said, I think this just makes it a lot more difficult to get that healthy, nutrient-dense food.”

For Lansing resident Larry Conover, traveling a long distance for good food is a necessity in order to maintain his diet.

“I eat a lot of whole food stuff it’s a big part of my diet,” said Conover of the healthy foods he relies on. “So often I have to drive to Okemos or East Lansing Area to find the kind of foods that I want so it’s a little rougher in Lansing.”

Conover said his commute to purchase groceries is at least a 20 minute drive.

Caitlyn Schneider, the manager of Urbandale Farm in Lansing, said that economic diversity is one reason why Lansing is a food desert.

Schneider’s farm is in the middle of an urban neighborhood in Lansing and she said that much of the community gets involved with the produce from her farm.

For members of the Urbandale community, access to local produce is made easy by farmers like Schneider, and other local farms such as Half Barn Farm.

“Part of being an urban farm and a community farm is that we are here, embedded in this neighborhood and we are walking distance for a lot of people,” Schneider said. “Unlike a farm in the country that has barriers for access anybody can come and see this farm and see what we’re doing and I love that as well I love being a part of the community here in Lansing and making it healthier.”

However, Schneider said not all communities in Lansing are as lucky and many residents struggle with finding produce in their area.

“It’s a pretty economically diverse neighborhood and that can make it difficult for some people to have access to the time or the resources to prepare fresh food so I think that can be a challenge for a lot of people in Lansing,” said Schneider.


Taking steps in the right direction

The overall health of Lansing is dependent upon active change, both by residents and officials.

Hahn said there needs to be policy changes in cities to make healthy living more practical.

“Cities are especially in need of policy that encourages a healthy lifestyle, like safe bike lanes that allow a better commute,” said Hahn. “It is just so hard in a city to find fresh options, which is why things like farmers’ markets are imperative to the community.”

Hahn said that children are not exempt from the challenge of healthy living. They learn from and depend upon their parents to help guide them to making the right decisions regarding food.

“It is really important to get the parents involved because, for most kids, it is their parents who make most of the decisions about what they eat in a day,” said Hahn. “So we have to educate the parents, too, so that they can be role models for the kids and help provide them with the right choices.”

Hahn is involved with a national program called Shapedown, which helps guide children and their parents to improve their lifestyle. This program, and others like it, is one solution that has been implemented nationally to combat rising obesity rates.

Hahn said it is extremely important educate both the parents and the children, as healthy living for families is a team effort.

“It is really important to get the parents involved because, for most kids, it is their parents who make most of the decisions about what they eat in a day,” said Hahn. “So we have to educate the parents, too, so that they can be role models for the kids and help provide them with the right choices.”

Hahn works with Beth Darnell, the Director of the Shapedown Program in Ann Arbor, to ensure that families get a cohesive training in how to live a healthy lifestyle.

Darnell saidone of the program’s biggest strengths is its ability to make health seem fun, thus encouraging families to be willing to put in the necessary effort.

Other programs like the Opitfast program at Sparrow Hospital, focus on weight loss rather than lifestyle changes.

But Darnell said the need for more lifestyle-based programs is growing, as diets are not permanent solutions.

Along with health programs, access to healthy food is an essential element to making Lansing a healthier place.

Farms like Urbandale Farm and Half Barn Farm, located in Lansing, are dedicated to serving healthy food to the local community, said Schneider. Informing the community about what they offer, however, is not as easy.

“I am able to grow much more food on this land than I am able to sell at this point,” said Schneider, manager of Urbandale Farm. “I think that one thing we can do is increase the visibility of the food that is locally grown here in Lansing and try and find ways to make it easier for people to access it.”

She said she thinks a lot of people just assume that if they need food, they need to go to the grocery store.

“There are a lot of other ways especially here in Lansing where it’s easy to grow your own food or raise your own food in some ways,” Schneider said.

Shoup said he would be open to looking for food in alternative areas, outside of his usual grocery. He said he was just unaware of the existence of the options.

“I would definitely be open to getting my food from other places, I am just so used to going to the grocery store so I never really tried looking for anywhere else,” said Shoup.

Davis said that, above all, people should be educated on why healthy eating is so important.

“I think a lot of the population knows generally what they should be doing to eat healthy, but a lot of the times they don’t really know why,” said Davis. “So that can be the motivation piece that takes them from ‘I know I should do it’ to ‘I am going to do it.’ So I am a big proponent of actually educating and explaining what this is helping them with short-term, but also long-term.”

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