‘Food deserts’ predominant in Butler County


Reporter Eric Robinette spoke to Butler County officials, experts, business owners and several Butler County residents to offer insight about how some areas of our community have limited access to healthy, affordable food options.

More than half of Middletown and almost half of Hamilton classifies as a “food desert,” according to a study by Miami University and the Butler County OSU Extension Office, meaning it can be very hard to get healthy food if you don’t have a car.

A food desert, as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is an urban neighborhood or rural town “without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options.”

Miami University’s study, done in 2009 and based on the 2000 Census, stipulated that a food desert had to be an area where people couldn’t get to a grocery without walking about one mile, said Robbyn Abbitt, of Miami University’s geography department.

“If you don’t have access to a car, the way our grocery stores are in Butler County, it’s very easy to get more than a decent walkable distance (away). We call that a mile. If you’re outside of that mile, it’s extremely difficult to get to a grocery store that sells decent food,” Abbitt said.

The study found that food deserts were prominent in Middletown and Hamilton, in Trenton, a small section of Fairfield, and even a section of West Chester Twp., which many people consider affluent.

The study found that 27,936 people lived in Hamilton food deserts, while Middletown had 28,059. That’s 46 percent and 55 percent of the population, respectively. More than 2,000 households in Hamilton and more than 1,700 households in Hamilton reported having no access to a car.

Karen Shepherd, of Trenton, is one of those people. More than once, she has walked from the railroad tracks that cross Ohio 73 to the pantry at Family Service of Middletown to get food for her four children. That’s a six-mile trek that takes two hours each way, she estimated.

“I’ve walked the whole way … I’ve done it probably about three times,” she said. “I’ve got four kids at home, and when my food stamps run out, I go to the pantry for that. So I’ll have enough in the month for my kids.”

The rise of the food desert over the past decade has come about because of large grocery stores like Kroger and Wal-Mart locating in the suburbs, while neighborhood grocery stores have fallen by the wayside, said Tina Osso, executive director of the Shared Harvest Food Bank. The last standalone IGA grocery in Butler County, in Ross Twp., closed in June. The IGAs that remain are ones attached to gas stations.

Downtown Middletown has a concentration of food deserts, as does the east side of Hamilton, Osso said.

“It used to be that you were able to walk to your neighborhood grocer. That neighborhood grocer is no longer there. In place of that you have convenient marts. Their prices are 25 percent to 30 percent higher, and they don’t carry the variety of healthier foods you have in grocery stores,”Osso said.

And where there are not grocery stores, there tends to be a concentration of fast food restaurants — where the food is less expensive, but unhealthy.

“Here you’ll have three or four fast-food restaurants and a convenience store all within walking distance of each other. And of course, there’s nothing healthy to be found in the lower-cost items. But many people depend on those value menus, those dollar items, to get through periods of not having enough food,” Osso said.

Parts of the study surprised Abbitt.

“We knew there would be problems in Hamilton and Middletown because of the high poverty rates. Probably the three surprises were Trenton, Fairfield and West Chester,” she said. A small part of Fairfield, with a population of 1,056 was a food desert, while 1,301 Trenton residents lived in a food desert. West Chester Twp. had 4,468 people in its food desert.

“At the time, West Chester was seen as this kind of luxury area where very few people had problems. It was a surprise that (the Butler County extension office) would need to reach out to an affluent area,” Abbitt said.

The survey literally hit home for Abbitt because “I lived in Trenton, and as we were doing this story, our one grocery store (an IGA) closed. So suddenly, Trenton, which was not going to really show up as a food desert, did because you can’t get to either of the the Kroger at Engle’s Corner or at (Ohio) 4. They’re more than a mile away.”

Trenton’s IGA closed in 2006. City Manager John Jones has said since he arrived six years ago, there have been more than 10 offers for that property, but for various reasons, none of them have panned out. There have also been inquires about using the property as something other than a grocer, such as an archery or firing range, he said.

Still, “It’s been our goal, of both council and this administration, to get a full-service grocery … Barn and Bunk clearly sells fresh produce all the time, so that’s a good alternative.” Jones said, referring to the farm market on Wayne-Madison Road that is not far from where the IGA was. Trenton does have an IGA Express in a gas station on State Street, but that location can only do so much, said resident Gary Schenck.

“We have everything a typical IGA would have, but we just don’t have room for a high volume of stock, which causes higher prices,” he said.

Agencies like Family Service of Middletown have tried to combat the food desert by offering programs like the farmers market that provides fresh produce to those who participate in the Carel Cosby Summer Food for Kids program.

Some of those sites, such as Applewood and Catalina, are “kind of remote locations where you’ve got people concentrated together, but they don’t have resources to access things they need, and food is as the top of the list,” said Maurice Maxwell, the executive director of Family Service. “We truly know those folks out there are isolated.”

The OSU Extension Office works with food banks and agricultural resources to provide nutrition education.

“One of the projects that developed (as a result) was HUGS, the Hamilton Urban Garden System. They’re doing a lot of work to start community gardens. We were also working on a mobile food truck that would sell fresh produce,” said Dan Remley of the extension office, who worked on the study.

Farmers markets have become an increasingly popular option to provide a kind of oasis from the food desert. Not only has Family Service started offering fresh produce, but there are farmers markets in downtown Middletown, like the one that occupies the former Swallen’s space.

“Whether they’re downtown or in community gardens, that enhances our health in what are considered food deserts,” said Jackie Phillips, Middletown’s health commissioner. She also noted that such offerings are meant to help counter obesity trends among the poor.

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