Finger Lakes Food for Everyone: Mapping scarcity in a land of plenty

The Finger Lakes is a region of abundance but can everyone access the bounty?

A friend recently returned from some traveling and remarked to us that by being away and eating meals in other places, she was made aware of how delicious and fresh the fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, and wines are right here at home. It reminded us of this piece we ran a couple of years ago about that high-quality food and how it’s not accessible to everyone in the region, for various reasons. We thought you’d appreciate reading or re-reading it and telling us what you think. 

By Alison Fromme

The Finger Lakes region produces an amazing array and quantity of food on more than 2 million acres of farmland. Common staples, cutting-edge varietals and rediscovered heirlooms sprout from the landscape. With so much abundant fresh local produce, some might assume that we all enjoy full bellies and excellent health.

But that’s not necessarily the case. How healthy food gets from the field to the table—or doesn’t—is a complicated issue. Our agricultural bounty is just one piece of the puzzle.

What is a healthy diet? Do we have an accessible supply of healthy foods here? Can we afford those foods? Do we buy them?

A new interactive online map offers a glimpse into these questions and their possible answers. In early 2010, the United States Department of Agriculture released the Food Environment Atlas (http://www.ers.usda.gov/foodatlas/), which includes nearly 100 statistical measures at the county level, across the entire nation. The map illustrates everything from number of farmers’ markets to gallons of soda consumed. Unveiled as part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign, the map is intended to stimulate research on food choices and diet and to offer a geographic look at a community’s ability to access healthy food.

Here in the Finger Lakes, a picture of our food landscape emerges from the data, but making sense of the nuances is a long-term project. Since the map was just published, researchers, policymakers, activists and others are just beginning to mine its potential.

“In general, we do have a supply system that allows people to have a healthy diet, including fresh fruits and vegetables throughout the winter,” says Miguel Gomez, assistant professor of economics at Cornell University, who specializes in marketing and food distribution. And, we have very strong local and regional food systems during the summer and fall, he adds, even though we lack the processing infrastructure for widespread year-round local diets.

But in a 14-county region like the Finger Lakes, which includes rural areas and urban centers, there are problem areas, Gomez explains. Despite having some of the highest quality farmland in the East, the Finger Lakes is just average when compared with neighboring states and the rest of the nation in terms of “food insecurity,” or a lack of variety, desirability and quantity of food, according to the Atlas.

Each of the 14 counties in the Finger Lakes has between 50 and 250 farms selling directly to consumers, as many as 10 farmers’ markets and at least one grocery store. But are they affordable and accessible? Although some have criticized the local and organic food movements for being elitist and costly, price is not the main factor driving food insecurity, according to experts here.

The cost of healthy food itself is not necessarily a problem, Gomez says, but the cost of searching for it is. In a recent local study, Gomez found that the lowest prices for fruits and vegetables were at the Central New York Regional Market, in a neighborhood with no supermarket.

Instead, transportation—whether it’s the cost of gas or an inconvenient bus schedule—and the limited hours of farmers’ markets can restrict the availability of food.

A person living between Seneca and Cayuga Lakes, for example, would have to travel a great distance to find a regular supply of healthy foods, says Gomez. Convenience stores exist nearby, but they don’t offer balanced choices, and travel to a city store is very expensive, especially if no members of the household work in a metropolitan area.

Areas that lack grocery stores are known as food deserts (although the term is not precisely defined among experts).  Gomez speculates that the most rural counties, like Schuyler, along with the Syracuse and Rochester urban centers, are more at risk of hosting food deserts than other regions in the Finger Lakes.

Indeed, more than a quarter of the Schuyler County population has low income and lives more than a mile from a grocery store, and as many as 6% of households don’t have a car. In Rochester and Syracuse each, more than 25,000 low-income residents live more than a mile from a grocery store.

Once at the store or market, many people aren’t aware of what makes up a healthy diet. Here in the Finger Lakes, we each eat almost 200 pounds of fruits and vegetables each year. But that’s countered by as much as 320 pounds of prepared foods, 125 pounds of packaged snacks and 70 gallons of soda.

A diet like that leaves residents here with obesity rates hovering above 25%, right around the national average. Seneca County is an exception, with rates above 30%. And Schuyler, Yates and Cortland Counties are in better shape than the rest of the region.

So where does this leave us? Activists are working to increase the amount of healthy, fresh local foods available to all people.  The number of farmers’ markets has increased dramatically—from about 15 to more than 400 in New York State over the last 40 years, according to Monika Roth, agriculture program leader at Cornell Cooperative Extension—Tompkins County (CCE-TC), and many accept SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps). In surveys, Roth has noticed many people would like to shop at farmers’ markets, if they knew market times and locations and it was convenient. And outreach programs like subsidized CSA shares and the CCE-TC Local Meats Fair are popular and expanding.

Even so, farmers’ markets, farm stands and CSAs still represent a very small proportion of the total amount of food we buy as a whole. In our land of plenty, we each spend somewhere between $6 and $50 per year on products straight from the farm. In our land of plenty, that seems too small of an amount given how much produce our farmers are making available.

Alison Fromme blogs about local food at ithacasfoodweb.com. She first learned about food deserts as a volunteer for Big Brothers Big Sisters in West Oakland, California, an urban community of 30,000 that until recently had zero grocery stores.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of Edible Finger Lakes.

 

 

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