Ohio's Food Desert Crisis: Impact of Food Inaccessibility

Every once in a while, Shari Cooper is forced to go to her local corner store to buy a loaf of bread or other essential. The prices at the store in her neighborhood are more expensive than what she pays at a major retailer, but she has mobility issues and isn’t able to get to the nearest full-service supermarket by herself.

Cooper, who works as a public relations assistant at Goodwill Easterseals Miami Valley, is a person with cerebral palsy, and she uses family members to get fresh food.

“The major store around my way, I would say it’s a good maybe 15 miles away, if not further,” said Cooper. “I live on the west side of Dayton, which is known as a poverty area. There’s not a lot of grocery stores in my area. All the grocery stores are in the upscale areas.”

The Hall Hunger Initiative, a relatively new community-advocacy network based in the Miami Valley, estimates that there are 50,000 people in Montgomery County who live in a food desert. Without a vehicle, many of the people living in West Dayton don’t have access to healthy, affordable foods, which can impact them short and long term. The absence of a neighborhood grocery store creates individual problems for everyone in the community.

“Transportation is a major barrier,” said Cooper. “I would say that probably for the majority of all people with disabilities. Because if you get to the store, on the bus you can only carry so many bags. You can’t carry a fresh jug of milk, or a bag of potatoes, because you just can’t carry all that when you’re on a scooter.”

Individuals with developmental disabilities face unique challenges and limitations when it comes to buying groceries. Challenges such as mobility and low or fixed incomes intersect and become harder to solve. Many people with developmental disabilities live with support systems, whether they’re corporate or family-member provided. These residential supports are critical, but they don’t entirely relieve the anxiety related to instable food access.

Affordability is as crucial a component to solving food insecurity as accessibility. Incomes in underserved communities are lower, and government assistance programs complicate things. When Shari Cooper has to go to the corner store and buy $0.99 bananas instead of bananas sold by the pound at a major retailer, she can use her SNAP card, but she feels it in her budget.

SNAP cards often don’t last as long as intended, and counterintuitively, fruits and vegetables can be more expensive than highly processed foods. There are programs to incentivize healthy eating, including Produce Perks and GusNIP, which offer $2 for every $1 spent on produce at farmer’s markets. Still, the issue of transportation remains in underserved communities. Cooper receives $15 per month on her SNAP card. She says she receives a low amount because she works and receives social security. 

“In my research, I see the income people are receiving from those benefits doesn’t seem to really cover expenses, so people are really piecing together income from multiple sources,” said Michelle Kaiser, an associate professor at The Ohio State University and member of its Food Innovation Center. “It’s just being vulnerable means that you are daily experiencing different decisions that you may or may not get to make compared to people that have the luxury of not having to make such choices.”

“Again, it’s not only the issue of transportation for people who need to shop, it’s their income,” said Cooper. “I live in a great community, but we need more support.”

Just the presence of a grocery store does not ensure affordability and equitable food access, but there can still be a significant economic impact for neighborhoods as a whole when grocery retailers begin development.

“Grocery stores can offer the anchor institution attracting food traffic and supporting businesses nearby,” said Caroline Harries, an associate director at The Food Trust. “They also create jobs, and the presence of a grocery store can even increase housing values. It’s estimated that 24 new jobs are created for every 10,000 square feet of retail grocery space. So, a large market can generate anywhere from 150-200 full and part-time jobs.”

Retail supermarkets generate tax revenue and capture local dollars, potentially revitalizing a community and its economy.

The total impact of food inaccessibility is multi-faceted. In Dayton and throughout Ohio, entire neighborhoods lack a reliable source of fresh, nutritious and affordable foods, and they aren’t being invested in by major corporations — leaving communities to find their own solutions.


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About this Article

"Ohio's Food Desert Crisis: Recognizing a Food Desert" is the first in a four-part series that aims to educate and inform people about the impact of food deserts for Ohioans with developmental disabilities. This article was published in November 2019.

Clay Voytek of O'Neill Communications wrote the articles for this series. O'Neill Communications is the Ohio DD Council's Public Awareness grantee. The articles in this series were funded by the Ohio Developmental Disabilities Council under the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act.

For more information about the series, including links to all articles, go to Ohio's Food Desert Crisis.