Flickr image by AndyRobertsPhotos/Used under Creative Commons license.

I admit I’d never heard of a “food desert” before Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ulster County educator Kristen Wilson filled me in. Food deserts are defined as urban neighborhoods and rural towns lacking reasonable access to fresh, healthy and affordable food — namely fresh fruits and vegetables.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture explains in their definition of “food desert” that these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast-food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable options. The lack of access contributes to a poor diet, leading to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease. A “food desert” designation is determined when the area in consideration has a poverty level of 20 percent or greater and lies further than a mile from a fresh food source.

Last summer, several BOCES New Visions 2011-12 students worked with Wilson, who leads the “A Healthy Kingston for Kids” program, to assess the access to healthy food in the city’s lower-income areas, using the metric for food deserts as being within one quarter of a mile walking distance from a source of fresh produce, and where 15 percent or more of the population is living below the poverty level. They surveyed 22 Midtown stores — convenience stores, grocery stores, gas stations, drug stores, chain superstores, bakeries, delis, ethnic specialty stores and health food stores were all polled. They noted the types of products sold there, where the products are bought from, whether they sell produce and what they sell. Also recorded were store owners’ opinions on selling locally grown produce, if they have the facilities to store, stock and refrigerate it and whether the produce sold is local.

Based on the information, the students created informational graphs, pie charts, tables and a Geographic Information System (GIS) “map” to pinpoint food deserts and spotlight ideal locations for offering fresh fruits and vegetables. According to the study, some stores refused to participate while others already sold local farm products.

More than 50 percent of the stores polled were less than 500 square feet in space, likely meaning they lacked room to grow and expand their selections. Eight out of the 22 stores also lacked parking lots for ease of shopping, and most stores generally lacked adequate parking altogether.

Less than 32 percent of the stores had more than 10 refrigerated storage units, and 9 percent had none. More than 50 percent had freezer storage, but 59 percent lacked necessary space to install refrigerator coolers, posing another problem for long-term produce vending.

The survey determined that the top five major goods and services offered in the markets were packaged foods, dairy products limited to milk and cheese, loaves of bread, box or bagged cereals and canned fruits. Out of the 22 stores, 12 did not sell fresh produce, with only four selling from local farms that included Davenports, Gill’s, Feather Ridge Farm in Ellenville and Stewart’s Farm in Saratoga. Out of the eight stores which carry fresh produce, the majority restocked every three days while two stores admitted they did not restock frequently. Thirty-one percent of the stores said they were unwilling to sell local produce, and only 26.3 percent said they would. (The others did not know.) None of the stores which carried local produce advertised it, while most of the stores did advertise alcohol and tobacco products, packaged snacks and sugary drinks. None of the stores advertised healthy foods.

The study revealed some surprising food desert zones, while other locations raised few eyebrows —Wurts Street and Hone Street in the Rondout area and Albany Avenue between Wiltwyck Avenue and Roosevelt Avenue. Ponckhockie has a food desert around Hasbrouck Avenue and Delaware Avenue. Midtown has one around Pine Street, Henry Street, Franklin Street and Van Deusen Street.

Enlisting shopkeepers

According to Melissa Herzog, a Cornell Cooperative educator, they have begun working with Midtown merchants within the food desert zone to allow the Kingston Farmers’ Market to stock fresh fruits and vegetable stands in their market space. A state FreshConnect grant that is also paying start-up costs for the Midtown Farmer’s Market will pay for fruit and vegetable display units as well as advertising for the stores agreeing to carry the produce.

The FreshConnect program ropes in farmers’ markets, youth markets, community-supported agriculture programs (CSAs), and food distribution systems to make New York farm products more easily available and accessible in low-income and underserved areas.