Ohio's Food Desert Crisis: Community-Minded Solutions

When the Gem City Market had to decide about selling alcohol in the store, they held a community meeting, and the members voted yes-or-no on the issue. The market will be a community-owned co-op, where workers are member/owners, and it is scheduled to open in West Dayton within the next year.

Most food deserts exist in historically underserved communities, such as minority neighborhoods and low-income communities. These communities need dialogue and solutions, but they’re not necessarily counting on corporate retail investment.

“The answer to a number of people is — don’t count on getting another grocery store in there, let’s make our own,” said Mark Willis, the director of the Hall Hunger Initiative.

In addition to direct community action, awareness and education are crucial first steps in solving food access issues. 

The Gem City Market already has 2,800 members within the community, and Willis says they’re committed to a sustainable and equitable food system. A percentage of the products in the full-service store will be local, and the market will have a teaching kitchen where classes will be held.

“Food is very cultural,” said Willis. “You tend to eat what your family ate, so if you didn’t eat well growing up, even if we have healthier food available, you might not take advantage of it. So, part of what we have to do is do some education.”

Many community activists and social workers say that education and awareness are top priorities when addressing the problem. Community partnership and dialogue is imperative as well. In Dayton, after noticing an influx in immigrants from Central America, Willis created an additional section in a local food pantry with donations from local restaurants.

“We believe communities thrive with multiple points of access to healthy food, so that the healthy choice is the easy choice,” said Caroline Harries, an associate director of The Food Trust. “The first steps include recognizing the importance of access to healthy food, both from a public health as well as an economic development and economic health perspective. [This also] includes getting community perspective on the need and working with diverse perspectives on solutions.”

The Food Trust is a non-profit that has a program working to support corner store owners who want to increase their healthy offerings. The organization has also partnered with PolicyLink and the Reinvestment Fund to raise awareness through www.healthyfoodaccess.org. Mobile food trucks are available in certain areas throughout the state, in addition to mobile grocery stores.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced a new pilot program in New York that allows individuals to use their SNAP benefits to order items online from Walmart and Amazon and have them delivered. Similar pilot projects are being explored in various areas of the country, including Cincinnati, but there are regulatory hurdles.

There are a variety of supports and organizations that could provide additional help to Ohioans with developmental disabilities who are living in a food desert. Food advocacy groups across the state are working for a comprehensive, equitable food system, and they help anyone struggling with food insecurity. In the meantime, existing structures and residential supports are growing and adapting.

“Our system is always maturing, and we trust it’s getting better in some way or another,” said Jeff Davis, the director of the Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities. “So, I’m hoping that if one has case management, [food access] is part of the discussion.”

According to Michelle Kaiser, an associate professor at The Ohio State University and member of its Food Innovation Center, problems associated with food access will persist for some individuals until we look beyond public health.

“We have great food banking programs, great food pantry systems, great charity programs, and we have some level of government programs,” said Kaiser. “But, to me, clearly those aren’t enough. We need to look at the bigger issues of addressing racial injustices and addressing the root causes, which takes time and is harder.


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.