Dr. Heidi Blanck, the chief of the Obesity Prevention and Control Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, calls them “food swamps” – neighborhoods where the stores selling healthy food such as fresh fruits and vegetables are vastly outnumbered by convenience stores and fast-food restaurants selling unhealthy choices. An Augusta Chronicle analysis of Richmond County found five Census tracts where there are virtually no healthy options, creating what is referred to as a “food desert.”
The Turpin Hill and Bethlehem neighborhoods, downtown Augusta, the lower east side of south Augusta and an area east of Washington Road to the Savannah River bordered by Interstate 20 and the Columbia County line are dominated by fast-food franchises. Except for that border area, almost all of them also see high percentages of people living in poverty. The lack of grocery stores, and the high percentage of fast-food restaurants and convenience stores or other stores that sell staples but not fresh food, is no coincidence in these areas, experts said.
Supermarkets across the country had a trend “where a lot of communities were red-lined,” or marked off as poor financial risks for store placement, said Dwayne Wharton, the director of external affairs for The Food Trust in Philadelphia.
Over the years as people left for the suburbs “you had stores following the more affluent customer base and almost abandoning these communities because they didn’t necessarily recognize that there still is buying power in those communities,” he said. “And not necessarily even considering the health impact that would have. What took their place were convenience stores looking to promote and sell these high-caloric, processed foods and not necessarily fruits and vegetables. You have a lot of fast-food restaurants that exist around these communities as well, the food swamp issue.”
That is by design as well, said John Paul Stout, the sustainable development manager for the Augusta Planning Department.
“From a city planning, urban design perspective that is something you are always combating because obviously those with the lower socio-economic demographic range are more apt to purchase at the lower-cost food outlets, which are typically your fast food and typically your least healthy,” he said. “It really is a negative cycle. And it is cyclical because fast-food restaurants aren’t putting places on a whim.”
WHILE SOME WILL argue that issues such as childhood obesity or obesity in general are strictly matters of personal responsibility, the fact is those communities are at a disadvantage, said Deborah Presnell, a facilitator with Healthy Augusta and a member of the Richmond County Board of Health.
“People need a choice and the healthy choice should be the easy choice,” she said. “For the poor, the healthy choice is very, very difficult. Their choice is to go to Family Dollar (stores).”
That is why groups such as Voices for Georgia’s Children see food deserts and food swamps as childhood obesity issues. The areas tend to see higher rates of obese children, said Dante McKay, the associate policy director for child health.
In Augusta’s Bethlehem neighborhood, which scored a zero for percentage of stores selling healthy foods, nearly 60 percent of the residents are living in poverty, with 25 percent to 35 percent being children.
Food deserts and food swamps are also likely to lack safe recreational facilities and access to physical activity in general, which also need to be considered, McKay said.
“Food access is a huge issue, but it is not the only issue,” he said. “If you don’t look at all of these areas together, then it could undermine the goal of reducing or reversing childhood obesity in the state.”
For the past year, The Food Trust and Voices for Georgia’s Children have been helping to lead the Georgia Supermarket Access Task Force, meeting with key participants, such as grocers, those in public health and agriculture, to talk about ways to get stores back into these areas. Some of them are financial and some are regulatory, Wharton said.
“We came up with all of these barriers and then started talking about things we could do policy-wise that could make it more appealing and make the environment better for these grocers to operate in underserved areas,” he said.
The final report with about a dozen recommendations will be issued later this month, but one of them will be encouraging Georgia to follow the lead of Pennsylvania in establishing a Fresh Food Financing Initiative. The public-private fund, which included investment from the state, grew to about $85 million and helped create nearly 90 projects. Stores were brought back into areas and existing stores were renovated or equipped to carry fresh food.
“It not only makes a good health impact where 500,000 people now have access to healthy foods who didn’t have it before but you also had the creation or the retention of these 5,000 jobs that went along with it,” Wharton said. “You also had markets opening in underserved areas that basically were written off and are now thriving.”
That kind of impact is on the mind of planners as they look at projects, such as the revitalization and renovation of the 15th Street corridor in Augusta, Stout said.
“We definitely deal with food deserts on 15th Street when we talk about revitalizing that area, which is one that is very susceptible to a food swamp,” he said.
As they talk about creating greenspaces and making the corridor more pedestrian- and bike-friendly, they are also encouraging groups to think about community gardens, Stout said. And although he encourages groups to apply for grants at every opportunity, there is only so much the city can do, he said.
EFFORTS TO GET communitywide action in Augusta on food issues so far have failed to yield any large action, Presnell said.
“A lot of people are interested in food issues but from a lot of different perspectives,” she said.
There are a lot of people who want to discuss the problems, Stout said.
One success story is in the Harrisburg neighborhood, where The Veggie Truck Farmers Market will be held every Tuesday starting March 26 at St. Luke United Methodist Church. The initiative grew out of the efforts of a number of different groups, including Good Neighbor Ministries, St. Luke and Augusta Locally Grown, said Brett Heimlich, a student at Medical College of Georgia at Georgia Regents University.
The market will include health screenings and cooking demonstrations. It can provide a real incentive for residents to buy the locally produced goods through a grant that lets them match every dollar of EBT purchases. That also allows local farmers to connect with a new market, he said.
Heimlich, who lives and volunteers in Harrisburg with other medical students through Good Neighbor Ministries, said the community is really taking ownership of the effort.