When a market is too far away

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Jose Guillen, 25, stocks the shelves at C-Town Supermarket in Tarrytown. Photo by Tania Savayan/lohud

Some areas are considered ‘supermarket deserts,’ but how far you live from a grocery store does not always correspond to how healthy you eat

Haverstraw is a “supermarket desert” in the eyes of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but Rockland County nutritionist Michelle Kleinman sees the village more as a food swamp teeming with unhealthy temptations.

“There’s an overabundance of high-energy food,” Kleinman said. “Corner stores advertise beer, soda, high-energy and high-calorie snacks. You have to look and search for the healthier items.”

The village is one of several so-called supermarket deserts in the Lower Hudson Valley, low-income neighborhoods where most residents live a mile or more from the nearest supermarket. Using grocery industry and Census data from 2010, the USDA also identified Spring Valley, Monsey, Patterson and parts of Yorktown as supermarket deserts.

Jose Guillen, 25, has worked at C-Town Supermarket in Tarrytown for three years. Photo by Tania Savyan/lohud.

In 2010, President Barack Obama’s administration introduced an initiative to help bring new grocery stores and healthy food retailers to underserved communities. It was part of the first lady’s “Let’s Move” campaign to end obesity — reduce the number of supermarket deserts and you create better access to high-quality, nutritious food, the thinking goes.

Five years later, researchers are finding that, while people who live in food deserts may have poor eating habits, the reason why might have little to do with how far they live from the nearest supermarket.

In fact, across all socioeconomic classes, distance appears to play a fairly minor role in determining where consumers primarily shop.

“It’s clear people are shopping around,” said Michele Ver Ploeg, a USDA economist who helped lead the effort to identify supermarket deserts nationally and whose latest report shows that Americans are traveling further to do their shopping.

The report, released earlier this year, found that households that were an average of 2 miles from the nearest supermarket tend to shop at stores nearly twice as far away.

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Shirley McCallum of Sleepy Hollow looks for a coupon at C-Town Supermarket in Tarrytown,

John Meore/lohud

Even among households participating in what was formerly called the food-stamp program, consumers primarily shopped at a store more than 3 miles away, even though the nearest authorized supermarket was a mile closer. Consumers without cars tended to shop at a store about a mile away instead of a closer one, half a mile away.

So, while there’s a correlation between limited access to nutritious food, poor diets and high obesity rates, researchers are still trying to determine exactly what the connection is and what role supermarkets play.

“Supermarkets have great health benefits … but they’re not a panacea,” Ver Ploeg said.

The last supermarket left downtown Haverstraw in the 1970s, Mayor Michael Kohut said.

“That’s when more bodegas, small stores, popped up to fill the void,” he said.

The proliferation of small corner stores in the village has had its advantages. Some storekeepers will allow their most loyal customers to buy products on credit, Kohut said. The disadvantage is that these small stores can’t offer a variety of fruits, vegetables and other healthy choices, and, when they do, the prices are generally higher.

Anti-poverty groups, such as the Rockland County Community Action Partnership of the Westchester Community Opportunity Program, which runs food pantries in Haverstraw and Spring Valley, work to supplement the weekly grocery needs of  low-income residents. The pantry makes an effort to stock fresh produce and, at a minimum, keep frozen vegetables on hand, said area director Penny Jennings.

Judy Lew, 50, a Haverstraw resident without access to a car, is among those who depend on the pantry services.

“I don’t know what I’d do if it wasn’t for WestCOP and the program that they offer,” she said.

The only time Lew is able to go to a supermarket is when her friends invite her to accompany them. If she had her choice, she would go to the ShopRite in Stony Point a little further away because she thinks the prices are better — but sometimes she doesn’t have a choice.

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Local officials have had some luck in changing diets through public education campaigns.

Tania Savayan/lohud

Even when a new supermarket is introduced in a low-income neighborhood, research shows there’s no guarantee residents will shop there, although its opening actually can work to promote healthy eating.

A 2015 study by the RAND Corp. found that, when a full-service supermarket opened in an area of Pittsburgh that had been previously identified as a food desert, residents’ diets improved.
Their consumption of fats, alcohol and added sugar decreased, although none of the improvements were linked to their use of the supermarket.

Researchers postulated that the community advocacy that went into getting the supermarket built highlighted the importance of healthy foods, and that may have helped educate residents on the importance of changing their diets.

Local officials have had some luck in changing diets through public education campaigns. Kleinman, the Rockland County nutritionist, helped spearhead a five-year state Department of Health-funded initiative to improve the quality of food at corner stores in Haverstraw, Spring Valley, Monsey and West Haverstraw.

Kleinman and staffers convinced some local shopkeepers to place water and low-calorie beverages at eye level, offer fruits and vegetables in the front of the store and by the checkout, and display placards and other marketing materials in English and Spanish encouraging the consumption of health foods.

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Public health nutritionist Michelle Kleinman talks with Dolly James, owner of Spring Valley's Indian Bazaar.

John Meore/lohud.

“We took families to the corner stores and taught them how to shop,” she said.

Jose Salto, the owner of Pantano’s Deli and Grocery, which participated in the initiative, agreed to place avocados and bananas near the checkout counter and allowed Kleinman to bring in new shelving that he used to display water closer to the front of the store rather than the soda that once dominated the space.

“We try to give people more healthy food,” Salto said.

The initiative appeared to make inroads in promoting healthy eating, Kleinman said.

“A lot of the stores saw decreases in their soda sales,” she said.

Still, corner store owners said it remains a struggle to stay in business. There are at least a dozen corner stores competing for the same customers, said Bako Patel, who bought the Mi Tierra store in Haverstraw four years ago.

“It’s like (having) five supermarkets,” he said.

Health advocates in parts of the region where there are supermarket deserts, such as in Putnam County, said the lack of transportation would present the biggest hurdles. However, with a fairly small low-income population, residents without access to cars are able to catch rides with friends and relatives, said Judy Callahan, the director at the Putnam Community Action Program.

She said she had some initial concerns about the A&P supermarket in Patterson closing after the company filed for bankruptcy, but she hasn’t yet seen any appreciable impact.

When the A&P in Hastings-on-Hudson closed, the village increased the frequency of a van that takes senior citizens and residents with disabilities on food-shopping trips, said Village Administrator Fran Frobel.

The closest grocery store is the Stop & Shop in Dobbs Ferry about a mile and a half away, which is not a problem for the majority of village residents who drive.

“Anyone who doesn’t have access to a car is in a tough situation,” Frobel said.

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The author

Hoa Nguyen has reported on A&P’s bankruptcy starting from when company lawyers opened their case in White Plains on July 19, 2015. A 15-year news veteran, Nguyen has covered businesses, breaking news, crime, schools and government in three states.

She has been part of lohud/The Journal News’ data journalism and reporting staff for nearly five years. Grocery shopping is one of her pastimes.

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