UC researcher says there's more to 'food deserts' than home address

Study: Commuters could get healthy foods near work

AVONDALE - Identifying a community's so-called "food deserts" might be more complex than just determining how far people's homes are from places to buy fresh fruit and veggies.

So says Michael Widener, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Cincinnati.

In an article to be published in the May journal of Health and Place, Widener and three colleagues from other universities argue that the definition of food deserts should also take into account where people work and travel throughout the day.

"People are moving throughout the city, going to work, picking up their kids," said Widener. "And when they do those things, they're actually changing their spatial location and spatial access."

Food deserts in Greater Cincinnati 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.

The problem is especially intense in lower-income neighborhoods with shrinking populations, such as Avondale.

There, Gabriel's Place has worked to address the problem by hosting a farmer's market each Thursday afternoon on the grounds of the former St. Michael's and All Angels Episcopal Church.

The nonprofit also offers classes during the farmer's market to teach recipes using the fresh produce available for sale, said Bill Witten, interim executive director of Gabriel's Place.

"Every week it's something different, and it gives the residents an opportunity to look at how they can take that base produce and make something good and healthy," Witten said.

He said residents also take buses to get to grocery stores where they can buy fresh, affordable food. But Witten said unemployment is high in Avondale so commutes to work don't necessarily ease the food desert problem.

Widener said future research would examine commuting patterns in more detail. Ultimately, he hopes the research could encourage communities to change transit routes to give people better access to fresh, affordable food, he said.

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