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Change is in season: Northside Farmers Market adds free shuttle to address ‘food desert'

Grant provides rides through August for market
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Posted at 7:00 AM, Jul 03, 2016
and last updated 2016-07-03 09:25:18-04

CINCINNATI -- Northside is a "food desert," outside of quick access to a supermarket. To help, Northside Farmers Market has added a free shuttle service through August, with the hope to fund it beyond that.

The free shuttle service will cover a 25-minute loop and make several stops.

For car owners, 1.6 miles can seem like just the blink of an eye. But think of walking that distance with a bag of tomatoes, cabbage and potatoes in 92-degree heat. Think of doing that with swollen feet or another ailment.

Not having a ride to the grocery store is more than an inconvenience for people living in food deserts – defined by the USDA as “more than 1 mile from a supermarket or large grocery store in urban areas and as more than 10 miles from a supermarket or large grocery store in rural areas.” It’s a social problem that reaches beyond neighborhoods, into hospitals, and into wallets in the form of public health expenditures.

The line from no-ride to health-challenged is fairly direct. According to Health Gap, a Cincinnati nonprofit: “Adults living in neighborhoods with supermarkets have the lowest rates of obesity and overweight. Adults living in neighborhoods with no supermarkets have the highest rates of obesity.”

The free shuttle service will cover a 25-minute loop and make several stops. See northsidefm.org for more information.

The USDA’s website on food access states that “Limited access to supermarkets, supercenters, grocery stores, or other sources of healthy and affordable food may make it harder for some Americans to eat a healthy diet.”

Ana Bird, director of Northside Farmers Market, said despite the influx of artists into the neighborhood and numerous cute but often pricey cafes and restaurants, “Northside is a food desert.” The mission of the market is to do more than supply farm-to-table restaurants and well-off households. Amid an absence of nearby grocery stores, the Northside market is the only regular provider of fresh, local produce and meats, which it sells one day a week, on Wednesday afternoons all year. The market also accepts food stamps – for people who can get there.

The market’s director and board recently stepped up to increase its customer base and break down transportation barriers. On June 1, it began operating a shuttle to carry residents who live beyond close walking distance to the market and back, to several stops in the area.

The route is a loop beginning at the Ashwood Apartments a little over a mile and a half north of the market, running south down Virginia Avenue to Chase and Hamilton avenues, a 25-minute ride with stops in several places. Times and locations are posted on NFM’s website, northsidefm.org.

A grant from Cincy Good Food Fund, organized in partnership with Churches Active In Northside, will fund the service through August.

“We’re trying to grow our SNAP program,” Bird said, referring to Ohio’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. “If on Wednesdays we can make it easier to get to the market, we can make things better by filling in (a piece of) that gap.”

It’s a pilot program, and Bird said she and NFM’s board are trying to get funding for the next two summers, though the market operates year-round.

“It’s expensive,” Bird said. “We’re not seeking funding for the winter yet. If it’s a success, I think we’ll be able to find funding. … This is a temporary fix.”

Bird said she and board members were concerned that not enough neighborhood residents were being served by the market. She got the idea for the shuttle from "Googling around," finding similar programs in Albany, New York and Florida, then calling those markets to learn how they ran their services.

It’s not just a benefit for residents. Northside Market vendor and board member Annie Woods of Dark Wood Farm said the shuttle grows the market’s market.

“It’s about the opportunity that more customers could gain access, because as a vendor having regular customers is wonderful,” she said.

Not having a ride, Woods said, “keeps people away from the market. Having this service removes some of those barriers. And it would be great during tomato season to have people able to access that.”