Access to grocery stores a challenge in CT, even in affluent area

There are pockets throughout the state where residents struggle to find a grocery store nearby, a challenge that can be compounded in areas with higher poverty rates where residents might not have access to a car or public transportation to get to one.

In parts of the state such as Bridgeport and New Haven the lower income level and further distance to a grocery store combine to create food deserts. Many residents in these cities and others, including Hartford, Stamford, Danbury and Waterbury, are located at least half a mile from the closest fresh food source, while in the suburbs around them some residents can be a mile or more away from the nearest grocery store.

In more affluent areas, residents might have a hard time buying food if their town doesn’t have any grocery stores or has just one.

In Easton, for example, residents have to time their grocery shopping around when farmers markets happen, adjust their shopping lists to what’s offered at its one general store, Greiser’s Coffee & Market, or shop in another town.

Easton First Selectman David Bindelglass said the tradeoff for the charm and beauty of Easton is having to travel to other towns for commercial grocery stores. He said that when residents want to go grocery shopping at a commercial store, they head to Fairfield, Monroe or Trumbull.

It’s something other towns face, like Weston.

With limited food access, it can be harder for people to achieve a healthy diet, said Jacqueline Michael-Midkiff, a public affairs specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service.

Julieth Callejas, executive director of End Hunger Connecticut, said more than 400,000 people struggle with hunger and/or food insecurity in Connecticut.

“Food insecurity is a prevalent problem in Connecticut,” she said.

“Regardless of income, living in a food desert exacerbates people’s ability to access the foods they want, including food that is culturally specific and healthier (i.e., fresh),” she said. “While many areas don’t fit the USDA’s definition of a food desert, many people don’t have adequate access to supermarkets such as in rural northeast and northwest Connecticut.”

Callejas said the need for food access is still present regardless of whether an area is officially classified as a food desert.

“This is why it’s important to have school and summer meals available to students as a way to increase a household’s food security, availability of farmers’ markets and incentives for low-income families, and transportation services to larger stores,” she said. 

Low access

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s definition for a food desert is broken down by census tract, and factors in both income and distance from grocery stories. A food desert is a low-income census tract with at least 500 people or 33 percent of the population living more than a mile in urban areas, or 20 miles in rural areas, from the nearest supermarket, supercenter or large grocery store.  

A low-income census tract is any tract where the poverty rate is 20 percent or greater, and the median family income is less than or equal to 80 percent of the statewide median family income or the metropolitan area’s median family income.

“Low access to healthy food is defined as being far from a supermarket, supercenter, or large grocery store,” Michael-Midkiff said. “A census tract is considered to have low access if a significant number or share of individuals in the tract is far from a supermarket; or where a significant number of households are located far from a supermarket and do not have access to a vehicle.”

In 2019, the most recent analysis available, about 8 percent of Connecticut’s census tracts could be considered a food desert based on income and how many people lived at least a mile or 10 miles from grocery stores, according to the Food Access Research Atlas,. a tool used to determine these areas in the U.S.

Some of these areas include parts of Bridgeport, New Haven, Naugatuck and Norwalk. 

“There are some areas that meet the low access criteria but not the low-income criteria and vice versa,” Michael-Midkiff said. 

These areas include parts of Westport, Weston and Easton where many people live more than a mile from a grocery store.

“Prices are on the rise, and so is hunger,” said U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn. “Food deserts restrict access to food, but critically, to fresh and healthy foods.”

DeLauro said it is typically low-income, communities of color that are designated food deserts, which includes rural communities, where the nearest grocery store could be over 30 minutes away from a person’s home. 

“What’s worse is that they disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color,” DeLauro said. “That is an outrage.”

DeLauro said she is glad the USDA tracks which areas are considered food deserts under their standards. She called it a helpful tool to help “communities and leaders in government better address community needs and move investments that help bring in stores and markets that provide fresh, healthy foods for communities in need of access.”

Programs available 

To help address these issues, Michael-Midkiff said the USDA administers several food assistance programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to help improve food security, particularly in low-income communities. She said there have also been programs implemented in states and municipalities “to increase access to affordable and nutritious food for underserved populations.”

Callejas said End Hunger Connecticut focuses on advocacy, education, outreach and research, which is a resource for policymakers, low-income families and community organizations. 

“Our programming intends to increase participation in federal food assistance programs, such as SNAP and programs related to child nutrition, as well as support our local farmers and emergency food systems,” Callejas said. “Our work on the ground informs our advocacy efforts, enabling us to bring forth community experiences and supporting data to impact legislative change.

Callejas said their work helps combat the effects of food deserts, including access to food in schools, meal programming outside of school and increased access to farmers markets for low-income individuals.

“We know that hungry students cannot focus on learning, and that school breakfast and/or lunch can often be the most nutritious meal a child eats throughout the day especially if they live in a geographical area that is lacking in access to nutritious food options,” she said.

She said they are currently working on a statewide campaign to secure funding to support no-cost school meals for all public school students in Connecticut to ensure all students have equitable access to food in school. They also partner with the state each year to help promote its free summer meals program.

Another program they offer is the CT Fresh Match program, which allows farmers markets across the state to double SNAP-eligible purchases, which she said increases access to fresh, locally grown produce for low-income households that may not otherwise have that access.

“We have been working over the last couple of years to continue expanding our network of participating markets so that we not only have partners in all corners of the state, but to increase the number of markets that are filling in the gaps for healthy food options in food desert areas of the state,” Callejas said.

Callejas said that most food deserts in the state are located in urban areas due to their population density.

“While there are many bodegas and smaller stores, these entities tend to not have the capacity to carry fresh fruits and vegetables,” she said. “This is largely part of the reason why EHC started the CT Fresh Match program and continues to grow our network of participating markets, allowing SNAP recipients to access fresh foods in a way they couldn’t before.”

Callejas said that about 10 years ago, there was a corner store initiative that installed refrigerators and shelving to increase fresh food offerings at corner stores and bodegas. Bridgeport was one of the cities to use the program, though some areas had mixed results. 

DeLauro said there are also federal programs that can help.

“In one of the wealthiest nations on Earth, food should not seem scarce,” DeLauro said. “People are hungry, and it is incumbent upon the government to close nutritional gaps that leave low-income communities and communities of color with severely limited food options, while wealthier areas thrive with an abundance of grocery stores.”

She is chair of the House Appropriations Committee, where she said she fought for $24 million for the “Community Development Financial Institutions Fund to support the Healthy Food Financing Initiative Awards program, which invests in creating healthy food options for underserved neighborhoods and food deserts.”

She also helped secure increases for maximum SNAP benefits, which helps families pay for food, as well as worked with colleagues to expand the Child Tax Credit as part of the American Rescue Plan. She said this led to a 46 percent decline in child poverty. 

“Food insufficiency decreased by 26 percent among low-income households following these monthly payments,” she said. “We can and must combat hunger by extending this life-sustaining legislation – and I am fighting to do just this.”

Sense of community

But while these smaller, more rural communities might not have many grocery stores, the places they do have take on another role beyond being a place to get food.

Bindelglass said Greiser’s Coffee & Market has been a community gathering space in Easton and residents enjoy frequenting the farmers markets.

“You can’t beat the stuff that’s picked in the morning and sold in the afternoon,” he said about the farmers markets. 

In both Easton and Weston, community seems to be a big part of the trip to local vendors instead of chain grocery stores, according to officials and residents.

Peter’s Weston Market used to be a hot spot for years, though it shut down about two years ago. Over the summer, Lily’s Weston Market opened in its spot. 

Mark McWhirter, one of the owners of Lily’s Weston Market, said the sense of community suffered while the market was closed. 

“Since then, friends and neighbors are always saying ‘hello,'” he said. 

Lily’s offers pre-prepared meals and grocery items. McWhirter said produce is more popular at their store, but pre-prepared meals are also a large part of the business. 

He said that for Thanksgiving, they prepared more than 100 cooked turkeys for customers.

Weston First Selectwoman Samantha Nestor also said Lily’s Weston Market was an amenity the community was lacking. Now, she called it a “hub” where people can run into and catch up with other members of the community. 

Nestor said she gets her coffee every day from Lily’s.

“I have a tremendous sense of pride that I get to support our local businesses,” she said. “It’s local people who are putting their own money in so people in town don’t have to drive far away.”

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