Access, Disparity, Equity & Insecurity: Food for Thought
By Lisa Weaver
*Originally published in Women2Women Magazine, Summer 2022 issue
Most people agree that access to affordable, healthy food is a basic human right. Sadly, millions of Americans struggle daily to access enough food for their families. There is a growing awareness of this problem, efforts to address it are expanding and new terminology to describe food access issues is more widely used.
“Food equity” means there is healthy, nutritious, culturally connected and sustainable food for all. “Food disparity,” on the other hand, refers to unequal access to healthy and nutritious food, often leading to poor health outcomes that disproportionately affecting low-income communities of color. The USDA’s 2017 food access report showed that about 39.5 million people were living in low-access and low-income neighborhoods. According to Partnership for a Healthier America, “Regardless of terminology used, under-resourced neighborhoods have less access to healthy foods while often having greater access to food sources that promote unhealthy eating. As neighborhood poverty increases, supermarket availability decreases and convenience stores increase, regardless of race/ethnicity.”
In thinking about gaps in healthy food access, we often think about food insecurity, as well. Individuals facing food insecurity have limited or uncertain access to food due to financial constraints, and in many cases, due to a lack of transportation. In 2020, 38.3 million people in the U.S. and 1.77 million Pennsylvanians lived in food-insecure households. Food insecurity can create barriers to a healthy lifestyle for individuals and families, and increase the risk for chronic diseases.
How does Berks County compare with the national data?
There are fewer grocery store establishments per 100,000 people compared to the rest of the state and nation, but there seems to be a higher concentration of SNAP/WIC approved retailers such as corner stores. So, while certain areas are technically excluded from being considered “low access” due to the number of stores meeting the demands of local SNAP/WIC recipients, the options for affordable healthy foods aren’t always easily accessible.
A 2013 Food Needs Assessment conducted in the City of Reading by The Food Trust and Reading Hospital provided information on the number of existing food retail locations as well as suggestions on how organizations could work together to increase food access that would help impact the health of residents. Community residents surveyed for the Assessment stated barriers to healthy foods included cost, quality of produce and distance to food retailers. They wanted an increase in quality of produce at stores, more food emergency distribution centers and more farmers markets.
In October 2017, the United Way of Berks County’s “Data Walk” event in the Oakbrook Homes neighborhood revealed that 50% of households worried about not having enough food. Additionally, the last several Community Health Needs Assessments conducted by Penn State Health St. Joseph highlighted the importance of healthy food access as a social determinant of health and a key strategy for addressing high levels of diet-related illnesses like obesity and diabetes in Berks County. This cumulative research, along with work by the prior Reading Food Policy and Action Council and others, helped jumpstart new programs and partnerships to improve countywide food accessibility.
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated existing food needs in low-income communities, increasing the number of families struggling with food security by 20% nationwide. Locally, individuals and organizations rose to the occasion and Helping Harvest Fresh Food Bank’s leadership was critical in managing this situation while preparing for a protracted crisis. Helping Harvest’s Mobile Market program has grown from seven to 21 sites since 2020. These once-a-month pop-ups bring free fresh produce, dairy and meats (perishables not often found in food pantries) to strategic locations, reaching low-income residents in more remote areas of Berks and Schuylkill Counties.
The Food Trust works on strengthening the robust corner store network in Reading to increase access to fresh produce. They partnered with more than ten corner stores in the past few years to one, influence the shopping decisions of customers by offering nutrition lessons on healthy eating and two, offer resources to store owners by providing health marketing, equipment and grant support. Some of the corner stores are part of the Berks Farm Bucks network, a financial incentive program in the City of Reading.
The Berks Farm Bucks network is funded by various partners and organizations at the federal, state and local level. The network lets individuals using federal incentive programs like SNAP/EBT, or state incentive programs like WIC and FMNP to have their incentives matched by Berks Farm Bucks for increased spending power on fruits and vegetables. From 2015-2020, there was a 473% increase in state and federal funds utilized in the city of Reading compared to only $2,000 federal state SNAP/WIC/FMNP funds utilized in 2013, all due to the power of the Berks Farm Bucks network. In 2020-2021, around $85,000 in Berks Farm Bucks were used by community residents to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables in the City of Reading.
The redemption and distribution sites are strategically placed to address the issue of distance to food retailers and are accessible by public transportation. Pairing nutrition education with the Berks Farm Bucks redemption sites is another key action to addressing health concerns in our communities.
One such distribution site is the year-round farm stand at Penn State Health St. Joseph’s Downtown Campus. Located at 6th and Walnut Streets in Reading, the Downtown Campus is a community health hub for primary care, ancillary services and special health promotion and prevention programming. Started in 2018 in partnership with Blue Mountain Academy (BMA) Farm in Hamburg, the weekly farm stand is open every Tuesday and sells organic herbs and vegetables grown on their farm plus a variety of outsourced tropical fruits like avocados, pineapples, mangos and bananas. In 2021, the farm stand averaged 100 customers each week, redeeming an average of $400 in incentives, including Berks Farm Bucks. Many customers live within walking distance to the farm stand making it easier for them to shop. This year, we plan to gradually expand the farm stand, adding produce from other local farmers for greater variety.
The BMA farm stand is also a participating vendor in our Veggie Rx program, a fruit and vegetable prescription program that seeks to lower levels of diabetes and other diet-related diseases in Berks County. Now in its second phase, key program participant health metrics are still tracked, including pre- and post-program A1c (blood sugar levels), blood pressure and BMI. Results from the pilot program were encouraging, for example, A1c dropped an average of 1.3% across program participants. One patient said, “I learned how to eat less rice than I was eating. Before, I didn’t eat a lot of carrots or anything but now I eat them like crazy. It [the program] has helped me a lot.”
From strengthening connections between corner stores and farmers, to providing nutrition education and hosting farm stands and the Veggie Rx program, various organizations work together to increase healthy food access in our community. It is no small effort but we know we are making a difference based on testimonies from community members who have participated across all the programs:
Lilivette first started attending the weekly farm stand at Penn State Health St. Joseph in 2020 and participated in Heart Smarts lessons with The Food Trust. She began to attend other sites where nutrition lessons were offered like corner stores and community sites. Through the lessons, Lilivette began to connect with other health resources such as the Veggie Rx program and is now a patient in the program. “When I first started attending the lessons, I weighed around 246 pounds. I’m now down to around 165. The lessons have really helped me change how I eat, how to choose healthier foods and what they are. The recipes are also awesome. I’m always reading the nutrition facts labels and try to tell others to do the same,” she shared. Lilivette also mentioned how she makes some of the recipes and would probably make the taco salad recipe shared later that evening.
Testimonies like Lilivette’s keep us going. We invite you to join our efforts! If you’re interested in volunteering, donating, partnering or learning more about how to increase food access and food equity in our community, please reach out. Effective collaboration among individuals and organizations is ultimately what brought each of these programs to fruition and what it requires to keep them growing.
By Lisa Weaver
Healthy Community Program Associate
Penn State Health St. Joseph
Grants & Special Projects Officer and Healthy Community Initiatives
Penn State Health St. Joseph
With input from Jennifer Ramirez
The Food Trust