by Noor Hindi

Every Tuesday from 4 to 7 pm at the Summit Lake Community Center, a handful of people gather to sell, buy and be in the company of their neighbors at the local farmers market. It’s common to see kids playing at the park or families participating in free canoeing as vendors sell fresh fruits and vegetables.

Vernora McCants, who has been shopping at farmers markets for years, said she started paying more attention to them after being diagnosed with high blood pressure and learning about the sodium content in canned vegetables.

“I’ve been on this mission of trying to eat right so I can get off this blood pressure medication,” she says. “Tomatoes and cucumbers are my two favorite vegetables to buy from an actual garden.”

Alongside the vendors, which typically include Let’s Grow Akron and Ms. Julie’s Kitchen, are representatives from SNAP helping customers take advantage of their benefits. Since the beginning of the summer, recipients of SNAP — more commonly known as food stamps — can receive a dollar-for-dollar match for the purchase of fresh fruits and vegetables at various farmers markets in Summit County.

This is all in an attempt to help solve food access issues throughout Summit County. According to Summit County Public Health, more than 42,000 people throughout the county live in areas that are categorized as food deserts, or areas with a poverty rate of more than 20% that are also more than one mile away from a large retail food establishment.

Food desert residents, especially those without access to reliable transportation, are more likely to buy processed foods from corner stores or gas stations and less likely to buy fresh food. Over time, that puts them at an increased risk for health problems.

“I think in our culture, especially in inner-city culture, we’re so used to having that gas station and that corner store as our food source,” says Dannicka Stevenson, who has partnered with Let’s Grow Akron and other food agencies to educate communities on how to eat healthier through her business Sip.Savor.Soul.

Beth Knorr, executive director of Summit Food Coalition, added, “We have access concentrated in neighborhoods that have the means and the ability to travel to where grocery stores are. And the neighborhoods that have fewer people that have access to vehicles and the means to travel to grocery stores do not have those grocery stores.”

Redlining’s lasting legacy 

Ohio State University Assistant Professor Jason Reece says food access issues have been decades in the making due to Akron’s history of redlining neighborhoods — a history the city shares with many U.S. cities. 

In the 1930s and ’40s, redlining — which is now illegal, though its legacy lives on — was used by banks to color-code neighborhoods based on how likely they were to invest there. Majority-Black and inner-city neighborhoods were most commonly redlined, and banks would refuse to make mortgage loans or provide other financial services to people in those neighborhoods. 

“What’s happened historically is we have artificially limited investment into neighborhoods, which then breaks the local housing market within those spaces. You see those spaces start to deteriorate very quickly,” Reece says. “And so as those areas lose population [and] lose income, they may see the degradation of their infrastructure [and] they also then lose a lot of business activity.”

Akron’s food deserts include areas in and around West Hill, Sherbondy Hill, Summit Lake and East Akron, among others — most of which were considered undesirable by banks making loans decades ago. 

Reece explains that the businesses most likely to pop up in historically redlined neighborhoods are “predatory businesses,” like payday lenders, buy-here-pay-here auto dealerships and dollar stores. Large grocery chains and Walmart are unlikely to build locations in those neighborhoods because they don’t think residents will spend enough money at their stores. 

“We have to look at alternative options for providing access to food. There’s different ways to think about that, whether it’s supporting healthier food sources within the neighborhood itself or if we’re really kind of building [transportation] linkages so people can access different sources of food throughout the community,” Reece says. 

Although a food desert is defined as an area without a grocery store within one mile, Knorr says grocery stores can’t be the only solution to the problem. Having a grocery store in the neighborhood doesn’t mean it will provide fresh and affordable produce to the community it serves. For example, Lisa Nunn, executive director of Let’s Grow Akron, mentioned the produce at the Save-A-Lot in Summit Lake is not always fresh. Additionally, Stevenson says the Dave’s Supermarket, which serves Middlebury, often lacks clean produce, and many of its items are outdated.

Erin Molnar, director of local food programs at Countryside, has been encouraging farmers markets to accept WIC and SNAP to make sure low-income Akronites have access to fresh, locally grown food. Last year, Countryside opened a public food market at Northside Marketplace to serve the Cascade Valley neighborhood and to be available to low- to moderate-income families. But the market is only open on Sundays from 10 am until 2 pm. 

Molnar admits the market hasn’t been as successful as they’d hoped, and there’s “still not a lot of awareness” about the market. To help, Countryside sent out a mailer to residents in Cascade Valley. Molnar says she’s working on additional outreach “to better identify the specific challenges that exist for community members to go to the markets in their communities.” 

She says solving food access issues is difficult in part because people don’t often know how to cook or lack the time or money to learn. 

“We don’t know how to cook, we don’t have the equipment to cook, we don’t have the time to cook. And the way that the food industry in general has responded to that has been to increase convenience options,” such as microwavable dinners and processed meat, she says. “[People are] working 10 to 12 hours a day because they need to have two jobs.”

One way to access convenient and free food is through the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank. The foodbank reports that over 80,000 people in Summit County are food insecure, including 22,570 kids. Many of these people may not live in food desert areas but still have trouble accessing healthy food. 

To target these families and individuals, the foodbank has programs directed at supporting the community, supporting farmers and eliminating food waste. For example, they encourage partners like the Salvation Army and community centers to deliver food to senior housing in Summit County. It opens its doors on the fourth Thursday of every month for residents to pick up food free of charge. Katie Reed, senior manager of research, advocacy and programs, says all someone needs to do to get food is to find a local pantry by using the foodbank’s website, which lists 500 of them

Reed says those who are not eligible for SNAP but are still in need of food can come to the foodbank for assistance. 

“The food is here for people if they need it,” she says. “And there’s not income verification that they have to do. If you’re visiting a food pantry, all you have to do is sign a form saying, ‘I need it,’ and you can get that food.” 

The farmers market commitment issue 

Something that could be part of the solution to food access issues is farmers markets. But despite their effortless appearance, reliance on grassroots involvement and reduced overhead costs compared to brick-and-mortar stores, farmers markets are quite difficult to manage.

Molnar says accepting SNAP can cost a market $1,500 to $3,000 a year because they have to buy the equipment needed to accept EBT cards and hire a financial management contractor. And of all the people who utilize SNAP at Countryside farmers markets, only about 35% returned to markets a second time, though the numbers are steadily growing. According to a September press release from Countryside, recent numbers show a 39% increase in SNAP dollars spent during 2019 and more than $43,000 worth of fresh local produce was purchased by families in need. 

Still though, only about 1% of Summit County’s population shops at farmers markets, according to Knorr. 

“That’s a challenge in and of itself. These are small businesses and local businesses. And people say they want to support small local businesses, and yet they’re not showing up to support them,” Knorr says. 

Nunn says although there’s a farmers market almost every day in Akron, it’s often difficult to plan around them. Many only operate for a few months out of the year, and they’re all at different days and times of the week. And not only are they difficult to get to, but you can’t find everything you need there, which means an additional trip to the grocery store is often required.

“You have to be pretty committed,” she says. “[Shopping at a farmers market] is not like you’re going to make a list and you’re going to go to the grocery store and you’re going to get everything on that list.”

Nunn believes community gardens can increase access to fresh food in food deserts. The Let’s Grow Akron community farm model encourages residents to grow their own food. If they’re unable to due to time constraints, physical inability or lack of supplies, Let’s Grow Akron has gardens set up to support community meal programs and meal pantries. 

Nunn advocates for a “neighborhood-level food system” that is created by and for the neighborhood it serves. She recognizes this is “idealistic,” however, and says volunteers are most often retired people and young people who are really interested in gardening. 

“As a community, or even on the neighborhood level, we can make decisions and do things together that are in our own best interest, which big corporations don’t necessarily have in mind,” Nunn says. “I think the solution looks different in each neighborhood and each city, and that’s why it should be in the hands of the people who live there.” 

There are lots of ways to eat healthy in Akron. The challenge is in eating healthy day after day. 

Even with food pantries, farmers markets and community gardens, food disparity issues still exist in Akron. None of these solutions is the solution, leaders recognize. And even with all these players involved, the solutions form a patchwork that is difficult to navigate. Even if you knew how to cook from raw ingredients, which many people do not, living off of farmers markets and food pantries requires a tightly managed schedule. 

And food pantries, farmers markets and community gardens are up against fast food and quick convenience options. These become even more tempting for families suffering from poverty, working multiple jobs or living in insecure housing, who may be without electricity, water or dishes. These are the same families most likely to live in food deserts, where a dollar store is much easier to get to than a grocery store. 

“We’ve developed this rhetoric where we say, ‘people just need to get in their kitchen and cook more.’ We’re shaming people who are doing the best they can and it’s just unrealistic for them to be able to do that,” Molnar says. “So that has got me thinking about how we can do this differently. And I don’t have an answer yet.”

Noor Hindi is The Devil Strip’s senior reporter. Reach her at noor@thedevilstrip.com.

To access a hot meal find a local food pantry, visit akroncantonfoodbank.org/need-food. 

To find a list of local farmers markets, visit cvcountryside.org/eat-countryside-farmers-markets

To volunteer with Let’s Grow Akron, visit letsgrowakron.org/get-involved

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