Food deserts and insecurity impact Tompkins County

May 02, 2016 1 Comment by

by Kayla Dwyer

Every Friday, Nikki Nease picks up food donations from the Friendship Donations Network building on State Street in Ithaca and takes whatever is available — bread, baked goods, produce — to the kids in her afterschool program in Dryden.

She is the youth community educator for the Opportunity, Understanding, Respect, Success program, run through the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County, which mentors youth residing in mobile home parks in Dryden. Dryden, along with other community pockets within Tompkins County, including parts of Ithaca, has areas that classify as food deserts, where low-income residents have limited access to whole foods. That is why Nease said the families in the program are more than happy to take home the food she brings.

“My experience in general is that people can’t learn when they’re hungry, people can’t have fun when they’re hungry, people can’t be the best people that they are when they’re hungry, so food is essential for us to do anything,” she said.

Food insecurity is an issue in the Finger Lakes region, where there is a surplus of farms and markets, but these markets have limited hours, higher prices and are difficult to get to.

“Even for a person living in Ithaca, where there are several supermarkets, it can still be like a food desert for someone who has transportation or mobility issues,” said Lara Kaltman, nutrition team coordinator at the Cornell Cooperative Extension.

In Tompkins County, 13.2 percent of households in 2012 were classified as food insecure by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Environment Atlas. Though transportation is certainly one factor contributing to food insecurity — in 2010, 17.6 percent of the Tompkins County population had low access to grocery stores, according to the Atlas — Kaltman said it is not reducible to that.

“It’s multidimensional and it’s unique — I wouldn’t say it’s any one specific issue across the board,” she said.

One key root of the issue, however, is poverty, said Meaghan Rosen, coordinator at Friendship Donations Network. FDN accepts leftover food from grocery stores like Wegmans and distributes them to food pantries throughout Tompkins County.

“I’ve heard stories about people who receive food from some of the programs who really do have to decide if they’re gonna pay for their prescription medication or buy food,” she said.

The poverty rate in Tompkins County in 2010 stood at 19.6 percent, according to the Atlas. In addition, the average monthly cost of rent in the county saw a 45 percent increase from $527 in 2000 to $763 in 2010, according to an Alternatives Federal Credit Union study. Health care costs also rose by 88 percent, and taxes, 29 percent.

Kaltman said rising rents in downtown Ithaca have pushed families out of the downtown area, where they could easily walk to grocery stores, and into affordable housing communities that are built on the outskirts of town.

The Finger Lakes region has many varieties of populations, making generalizations difficult, Kaltman said. But she said the region does have many populations of immigrants, migrant farmworkers and political refugees. In addition, the geography of these long Finger Lakes often creates wide distances between rural communities and whole foods stores and markets.

Transportation and access to these types of food sources is a big issue for the families Nease works with in Dryden.

“When they need groceries, they’re either taking a bus — and the bus isn’t great — or they’re walking to the gas station to get dinner,” she said.

One part of the solution is in the works, which is the Rosie app. With this app, users can order groceries for delivery or pick-up. Kaltman said the app is piloting the acceptance of SNAP benefits, so that beneficiaries can use food stamps to purchase groceries and have them delivered.

“It would address the issue of food deserts among families who are most affected by food insecurity,” she said.

In other areas, food pantries sometimes deliver to the homes of these families. Rosen said FDN donates about 1,000 pounds of food a day to local pantries, but even with that, there are many families are are not being reached.

“It’s really sobering to think about that,” she said. “There are a lot of people right around us that are hungry and that don’t know when their next meal is going to be.”

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