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The Food Deserts Of Wichita

Health and Wellness Coalition of Wichita

Tomorrow marks the final day of business for two Dillons grocery stores in Wichita. According to the company, the stores have been underperforming for a number of years. Their absence could add to a problem that already exists in the city - an increasing number of what are called “food deserts.” Food deserts are low-income neighborhoods which have little access to fresh, affordable food.

When Grocers Close, Nutrition Goes With Them

The parking lot at the corner of Broadway and Harry streets near downtown Wichita will soon have a lot less traffic - both cars and shopping carts. That’s because the Dillons grocery store, which has been here for over six decades, is set to close tomorrow.

“It’s going to affect me a lot, I live like six blocks away,” says customer Lorinda Walker. “They’re going to lose my business to Wal-Mart.

Walker is still in her work attire, nametag and all. She’s in her 40’s, skinny with a long ponytail. She rode her bike here, which has a large basket on the back. She says she rides her bike everywhere, including to her job as a housekeeper, which pays minimum wage.

Credit Sean Sandefur
The Dillons grocery store at Broadway and Harry.

“We’re all low-income in this area, we can’t afford to take a bus most of the time…so we walk, or take a bike.”

Walker says it’s not just the inconvenience; she’s sad to see her neighborhood grocery store go and she doesn’t want to support Wal-Mart.

Another customer, James Clark, stands beside Walker. He says he walks here every week for his groceries.

“I’ll probably go to Family Dollar, I’ll do a lot of shopping at Family Dollar.”

This isn’t the only Dillons closing its doors, the one located at 13th and Woodlawn, also in a lower-income neighborhood, will be shutting down too.

The news of these closings is troubling to those already trying to provide healthy food to people who are already struggling to access it.

Teaching Healthy Eating

Denise Dias sits with her colleague Jan McMahon in a kitchen they use as a classroom.  They work as food and nutrition education agents with the Sedgwick County Extension Office, which is affiliated with Kansas State University. Their jobs are to show low-income families, as well as seniors, how to cook nutritious meals on limited budgets.

Credit Sean Sandefur
Denise Dias, left, and Jan McMahon are nutrition education agents for the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program at the Sedgwick County Extension office, which is affiliated with Kansas State University.

“Poor nutrition definitely does lead to staying in poverty longer and to more disease,” Dias says. “If you're a senior citizen and you have to choose between prescriptions and food and you short change yourself on food, then you're prescriptions aren't going to work as well.”

Colleague Jan McMahon says it’s hard for her office to do anything about the problem of accessibility; they encourage their clients to use transportation through churches, non-profits and city transit, but it often falls short. What they can do is get people acquainted with, and even excited about nutritious food.

“When we do classes and take a recipe out, it’s fun to see parents say, ‘Oh my kids will not eat this,’ and the kids come in after the class and they’re gobbling it up. The parents are just amazed, ‘my child will eat that? I didn’t think they’d eat that.’” McMahon says.

The two nutrition education agents also teach parents how to shop smart - stretching their dollar but still getting their family the nutrition they need. They estimate that at least 20,000 people throughout Sedgwick County are influenced by their education each year. 

The Study Of Food Deserts

At the YMCA building along Market Street in downtown Wichita, the lobby is busy with people both pre and post workout. It’s here where much of the data about food deserts in Wichita was first collected last year. Becky Tuttle’s organization collected that data, their offices are here at the YMCA.

Credit Sean Sandefur
Becky Tuttle of the Health and Wellness Coalition of Wichita, the organization that first studied food deserts in Wichita.

“The Health and Wellness Coalition is a community coalition, we’ve been in existence for about ten years.”

They determined that Wichita currently has 44 square miles of food deserts; they also found that one-fourth of the city’s population live in such areas. Tuttle says that they initially studied food deserts to get a snapshot of the city’s overall health. What they found is that these areas do in fact have sources of food, but it’s often unhealthy.

“From the study we found that just under 50 percent of convenient stores sell fruit, which is great and we applaud that. But only nine percent sell vegetables.”

Tuttle adds that the price of produce at convenient stores is often much higher than it is at grocery stores. Her organization is now taking a closer look at the food deserts they identified.

Credit Health and Wellness Coalition of Wichita
Prices for various fruits and vegetables in Wichita

“We're doing a follow up study about the behaviors of the people in a couple of the zip codes that have food deserts to figure out if they do eat healthy, how and why, and if people don't, how and why,” Tuttle says.

They hope to use the information to lift any barriers between these communities and healthy lifestyles. This includes lobbying for different policy making, such as public transportation, making the city more bike friendly and providing health and wellness programs in workplaces and schools.

It’s More Than Health

“When people are talking about the problems associated with food deserts they usually think of it in terms of individual health, and those are certainly major problems,” says Chase Billingham, a professor and sociologist at Wichita State University.

He adds that while you see higher rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease within food deserts, there are also much broader, less obvious problems.

“It's not just individual health that matters, you can think about it in community health outcomes, particularly the economic health of communities. Convenient access to a good grocery store is also an economic development issue.”

These issues can take many forms, according to Billingham. Those moving to a new city, or even moving within their own city, want to be near grocery stores.

“If you drive by a place and you see a lot of abandoned store fronts, if you see blight, you’re going to be less likely to want to live in that neighborhood,” Billingham explains.

He thinks it’s not out of the question to ask grocery stores to stay in low-income areas; if it’s profit margins they’re after, he suggests helping them out.

Credit Health and Wellness Coalition of Wichita

“Dillons is closing these stores mostly because they're not profitable for them. There may be a way you might implement some sort of public subsidy,” he says. “If we believe that grocery stores like Dillons are a benefit for the community, persuade those places to stay open even if they're facing very thin profit margins.”

Grow Your Own

Rebecca McMahon is walking up and down the rows of what she calls a demonstration garden, located at the Sedgwick County Extension office. It’s impressive - a number of raised beds offer peppers, tomatoes, squash, lettuce and much more. The garden is an example of what residents can build in their own neighborhoods.

“We usually have between 25 and 30 community gardens in Sedgwick County, most of them in the Wichita area,” McMahon says. “They’re in all sorts of neighborhoods, but a lot of them are in our lower income neighborhoods.”

Credit Sean Sandefur
The "demonstration garden" at the Sedgwick County Extension office in Wichita.

If access to fresh produce is the problem, growing it yourself can be a good option. McMahon provides instruction on how to utilize small patches of unused land to grow produce. She says it can be shared by a community, or simply put in a backyard for personal use. Building one doesn’t have to cost a lot of money, but you need volunteers and someone willing to give up a plot of land, which isn’t always easy.

To Learn More About Funding Grants For Community Gardens, Click Here

“You have to have a good site with full sun, you need good soil that's not contaminated with lead or other industrial chemicals, and you need access to water,” she explains. “So, it can be pretty tricky to get all three of those things in one site.”

Credit Sean Sandefur
Rebecca McMahon is a horticulture agent for the Sedgwick County Extension office.

McMahon says those that build and eventually harvest from community or home gardens, are living healthier lives.

The City of Wichita is currently discussing a sales tax, one that could impact these food deserts. If approved, more funds would be available for public transit, which could provide added service for those needing to get to more places with larger stores and affordable healthy food.

To Read The USDA's Full Report On Food Deserts In The U.S., Click Here

Follow Sean Sandefur on Twitter, @SeanSandefur

(This story originally aired on Morning Edition, July 18, 2014)