Ohio's Food Desert Crisis: Impact on Physical and Behavioral Health

Three Miami Valley hospitals have offered support and funding for a planned co-op grocery store in a West Dayton food desert. According to Mark Willis, the director of the Hall Hunger Initiative, fundraising for the Gem City Market was recently completed, and a groundbreaking is being planned sometime in the coming weeks.

“Hospitals are getting more and more involved in food, because they know that it’s not going to help their patients to discharge them, send them home with blood pressure medicine, and then they eat a box of ramen noodles,” said Willis.

In recent years, there has been an increase in conversation surrounding the importance of healthy food access and the connection between food deserts and chronic, nutrition-related illnesses and premature death. Limited food access means limited nutrition, which could have a negative effect on an individual’s physical and behavioral health. Over time, individuals without access to fresh, healthy foods are more at risk for obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, or cardiovascular disease. Over time, health trends could potentially affect Medicaid claims and benefits.

“They all are recognizing and putting significant dollars into efforts to promote healthy food,” said Willis. “In some ways, that should tell you more than any individual study.”

Food deserts are often located in underserved communities, which means there aren’t many other resources in the area either, including public services or retailers. When people are getting their groceries at stores such as Dollar General, they don’t have access to the foods and nutrients they need to be healthy.

“There are other stores where people could buy food, but at the Dollar General, they don’t have fresh food,” said John Pekar, the superintendent of the Vinton and Fairfield County Boards of Developmental Disabilities. “You can go and buy packaged preserved stuff, which is completely unhealthy — which leads to an unhealthy lifestyle and continues that spiral of poverty.”

Poverty, malnutrition and disability are all compounded in a system that makes each problem slightly worse and harder to fix. For individuals with developmental disabilities, food-related supports are critical to ensuring good health.

“I think I’m blessed to have family support,” said Shari Cooper, a public relations assistant at Goodwill-Easterseals and former member of the Ohio Developmental Disabilities Council. “But for somebody that doesn’t have that, we’ve got all these corner stores that sell junk food. And junk food leads to obesity. And when you’re in a scooter or a wheelchair or any kind of physical disability, you’re not getting exercise. The more you’re eating, the more pounds you pack on.”

In addition to gaining weight, poor eating habits can impact your mental health as much as a lack of sleep or social connection.

“There are a lot of behavioral health issues that have to do with poverty. Which then ties directly to obesity,” said Mindy Vance, a mental health administrator at the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. “For folks with things like depression and anxiety, unhealthy food causes biological changes and makes things harder on folks.”

Ginger Schmalenberg is currently serving as the interim executive director of The Gathering Place, a drop-in, peer-recovery center in Athens. Schmalenberg collaborates with the community and coordinates with other groups to pool resources and feed the people she serves because she sees a difference in the behavioral health of well-fed individuals. Food insecurity is a problem throughout Appalachia, but The Gathering Place has been able to get donations for fresh produce and eggs through Community Food Initiatives and fresh deer meat through Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry.

“Now, we only spend $700 a year on food, and we can provide a meal every day,” said Schmalenberg. “We’re able to meet food security needs. That’s a big thing, because if you come and you’re a member or a drop-in, you are going to get fed. We’re going to make sure you have food. That’s comfort; it’s one thing we can do. Oftentimes, people in crisis are going through housing instability and they’re like, ‘Do you have any food?’ Yes, that is something we can do instantly. We can create a food bag for them instantly.”

The Gathering Place has created a supportive environment for the individuals it serves through a focus on social connectedness and innovative, community-minded solutions to a variety of problems.

“For us, it’s more than just food — it’s community,” said Schmalenberg. “Cooking together lets a lot of people to talk about things that are important to them and their own recovery.”


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.