Columbus — In tiny Vinton County, population roughly 13,000, people have to drive a half an hour away to find a store selling fresh fruits and vegetables.
It’s been that way for more than two years, said Republican Congressman Steve Stivers, whose district includes the south-central Ohio county.
“There’s not a single grocery store in the entire county since September of 2013,” Stivers said. “People have to travel over 30 miles just to get healthy foods, to get fresh foods. They can find frozen foods in and around McArthur, but they have to travel to Athens to get anything fresh.”
Stivers was at the Statehouse March 7 to help launch the new Healthy Food for Ohio Program, which will direct millions of dollars in public and private funding to new and remodeled stores selling fresh produce in low-income and underserved areas.
State lawmakers included about $2 million in the last biennial budget as part of the effort, and organizers hope to help 10-15 store projects around the state.
Grocery chains and independent stores, farmers markets and co-ops and other types of businesses selling fresh produce are eligible for funding. The goal is to provide fresh, healthy foods in areas where no grocery stores or other outlets operate.
“The HFFO program aims to increase access to affordable, fresh food in underserved areas, improve the diets of Ohioans and spur economic development and revitalization,” said Diana Turoff, president and chief executive officer of the Finance Fund Capital Corp., the nonprofit that is administering the program. She added later, “Access to healthy food is essential to good nutrition and good health, and grocery stores help local economies thrive by providing jobs and increasing foot traffic to areas, which can stimulate additional private investment.”
Stivers said there are “food deserts” in urban and rural areas around the state, where residents have no grocery stores or outlets selling fresh produce.
“When I tell people in Columbus that we don’t have a grocery store in the whole county, they look at me like I have three heads,” said Rep. Ryan Smith (R-Bidwell), whose district includes part of Vinton County. “… Access to healthy food is so important anywhere throughout the state of Ohio. It’s important from a standpoint of battle chronic diseases and trying to make healthier Ohio citizens.”
Caroline Harries, associate director of The Food Trust, a national nonprofit that focuses on food access issues, said nearly 1 million Ohioans live in areas that have inadequate access to healthy food sources and higher death rates from diet-related disease.
“In these communities, it may actually be a whole lot easier to find a grape soda to find a bunch of fresh gapes,” she said, adding later, “We know that living closer to a grocery store can help improve diet, and it makes common sense. It’s difficult to eat healthily if you don’t have access to healthy foods, fresh fruit, in your neighborhood.”
Funding through the state program can be used for property purchases, remodeling efforts and other costs to expand healthy food access.
Kovac is the Dix Capital Bureau chief. Email him at mkovac@dixcom.com or on Twitter at OhioCapitalBlog.