'Food deserts': Cincinnati neighborhoods find innovative ways to get fresh food to local families

CINCINNATI - A new orchard is taking root in Avondale.

And while the trees stand only a few feet tall now, they could yield apples and pears by this time next year or the year after, said Myrita Craig, executive director of Gabriel’s Place, a nonprofit that works to get more fresh food on neighborhood tables.

“The food access issue is an opportunity in this neighborhood,” Craig told several dozen people gathered Wednesday at Gabriel's Place for a roundtable discussion organized by the Community Development Corporations Association of Greater Cincinnati.

“Gabriel’s Place is a food solution to the opportunities that we have in Avondale.”

What Craig sees as opportunity, though, others view as a problem. Avondale is one of many inner city neighborhoods in Greater Cincinnati known as a “food desert,” a place where residents lack easy access from their homes to full-service supermarkets with fresh fruits and vegetables.

Healthier Food, Healthier People

Food deserts here have gotten increased attention in recent years as public health advocates argue they are critical barriers to making the region healthier. After all, almost two of every three adults in Greater Cincinnati are overweight or obese, according to The Center for Closing the Health Gap in Greater Cincinnati.

But instead of waiting for grocery stores to come to them, a growing number of neighborhoods are finding other ways to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to their residents.

Gabriel’s Place is one. In addition to its community garden and fledgling orchard, the nonprofit is growing a pick-your-own berry patch with raspberries and blueberries, hosts a weekly farmer’s market where residents can buy fresh produce and runs a culinary program that teaches teenagers how to cook fresh food.

In another example, the Camp Washington Community Board is starting an urban farm to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to its surrounding communities.

Community organizer Joe Gorman told the roundtable group Wednesday that his group applied for a grant last year to fund the urban farm but didn’t receive it. Nonetheless the application process solidified the neighborhood’s desire to act, and the community board has continued working on the project.

“We are trying to evaluate and determine what can be grown there, and how it’s all going to work,” Gorman said.

The Center for Closing the Health Gap has another approach.

The center is working to create the “Do Right! Healthy Corner Store Network,” a program modeled after an initiative in Philadelphia that works with local convenience stores to encourage owners to stock fresh produce and other healthy foods.

Making Stores Convenient And Healthy

The network started last year as a pilot program with three stores in Avondale. The center received a grant from the Greater Cincinnati Foundation to expand the program to the West End, Walnut Hills, Lower Price Hill, Mt. Auburn and South Cumminsville neighborhoods, too, said Hannah Westheimer, the center’s community health program coordinator.

The $75,000 grant provides funds to help stores modernize refrigerators and remodel if necessary to take part in the program. It also pays for each participating store to get a $100 incentive. The program also provides business training to help store owners understand how best to store the fresh food to reduce waste and signage to help draw attention to the new offerings.

But participating stores must buy the fresh produce and other healthy foods on their own, Westheimer said, and that can be a challenge.

Many of the stores have to buy produce at grocery stores and mark it up or purchase “seconds” in bulk from wholesale produce vendors, which often spoils in just a day or two, she said.

The center is trying to work out a distribution deal to address that challenge but hasn’t quite gotten there yet, she said.

Even with all the hurdles the various programs face, Cincinnati City Councilman Wendell Young said he’s encouraged by the different efforts.

“In my opinion, this is the next best thing to replace the loss of grocery stores,” said Young, who attended Wednesday’s event. “I’m very excited about all this.”

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