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Cornerstore and the cornerstone

Food deserts in Toledo’s inner city and what’s being done to solve it

Published: Thursday, December 2, 2010

Updated: Friday, December 3, 2010 19:12


Photo Illustration by Kevin Sohnly and Nick Kneer / IC

Toledo GROWs Oneida Street location Site Manager Bryan Ellis tours the urban farm outside of downtow

Nick Kneer / IC

Toledo GROWs Oneida Street location Site Manager Bryan Ellis tours the urban farm outside of downtown. Ellis and members of Toledo GROWs plant fruits and vegetables in vacant lots in Toledo’s inner city in order to revitalize the area and provide healthy alternatives to the neighborhood options.

What once was a network of neighborhood "mom and pop" stores that sold locally-grown fresh fruits and vegetables to local consumers, Toledo's once tight-knit food market has been effectively dismantled over the years and replaced with a new system — one dotted with big box stores and franchise supermarkets.

That trend has left those low-income Toledo residents vulnerable to barriers such as distance, convenience and affordability.

A 2007 study conducted by the University of Toledo Urban Affairs Center reveals that 89 percent of over 300 low-income survey respondents cited taxi costs as a barrier to access supermarkets. However, the same study found that 14.2 percent of the respondents saw distance as a barrier to food, despite 42.2 percent reporting they travel between one and two miles to buy groceries – a distance the United States Department of Agriculture considers "low access" to food.

According to UAC Research Associate Paula Ross, who co-authored the study, distance and geographical constraints aren't the only factors leading to "food deserts" in the inner-city, which we are defining as the area from Summit Street to Upton Avenue, going east to west, and Manhattan Boulevard and Nebraska Avenue, going north to south. This area can be more easily identified as the I-75/I-280 interstate loop on a map.

"Just casual observation certainly says that it's a lot more convenient to eat unhealthy food than healthy food, and distance is a factor," Ross said. "But I think convenience is not the same thing as distance. And personally, I think convenience might be an even bigger [factor] than distance."

Toledo is not alone, however.

According to a 2005 USDA study, 116 million Americans have "low access" to supermarkets, meaning 42 percent of the country lives more than a mile away from a supermarket. A closer look reveals that nearly 44 percent of that 116 million group is comprised of higher-income Americans and 38 percent are low-income earners, who are usually unable to afford transportation to and from grocery stores.

Frogtown Episode 2: Food Crisis in the Inner City

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Not-so-convenient stores

Where the disappearance of small grocery stores in the city has left a hole, convenience stores, larger supermarkets and fast food restaurants have stepped in as food-providers. The 2007 UAC study shows only six grocery stores within the central city area of Toledo. Although there is no central database with the number of Toledo convenience stores on record, the Independent Collegian conducted a search using the Yellow Pages and Google maps and found the I-75/I-280 area has 32 convenience stores, which includes gas stations with mini marts.

According to Ross, the connection between local farmers and local grocers has eroded over the years, leaving behind a network unfit to link producer to consumer — something many argue is important to healthier eating.

"In the past, there were mom and pop stores, and they were of the scale that they could buy from local farmers," Ross said. "Those mom and pop stores are largely gone and have been replaced by big chains. And those big chains generally do centralized ordering and centralized stocking of the shelves. There's just not a fit for small-scale farmers. They're usually buying in bulk."

According to the UAC's report, 49 percent of the survey respondents indicated they often shop at larger grocery stores, where fresh produce is readily available. However, more than a third of the respondents reported they shop at neighborhood stores often, and more than 1-in-10 purchase their food at convenience stores.

According to registered dietician Matt Rhymond, the foods available at local convenience stores and discount stores are not supportive of a healthy diet because many of the items are filled with preservatives, empty calories and high fat, sugar and sodium content.

"Your neighborhood corner store isn't going to have anything in the way of nutrition," Rhymond said. "It's a place that carries food for quick consumption. These types of food are made to sit on the shelves for long periods of time, which means they're not fresh. Freshness is important – it means that the nutritional value of the food hasn't been removed.

Dan Madigan, director of Toledo's Farmers' Market, believes that Toledo's food problem is systematic: the more the network is dismantled, the more people grow comfortable not knowing where their food comes from.

"As far as the dismantlement, I think we went through a period of time where people thought the whole grocery store experience was actually developing the food network instead of actually dismantling the food network," Madigan said. "And now when you have food security and safety issues, all of a sudden people want to know where their food came from."

The tilapia on Oneida Street

One possible solution to low availability of nutritious food may arise from other problems within the city — such as the shrinking of the city's population, abandoned land and a number of juvenile offenders. The possible solution is urban farming, and the program is Toledo GROWs.

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