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Food and Feet

“Food desert” is not a phrase I was familiar with until very recently. Having met New Yorker Terry Kaelber at a meeting in D.C., he explained that his non-profit organization (United Neighborhood Houses of New York) was working to engage older residents in projects designed to improve access to healthy foods in low income neighborhoods of the city. He noted that entire swaths of the city have virtually zero supermarkets of the kind more affluent citizens take for granted as a source of fresh food. Convenience stores? Yes Fast-food outlets? Of course. But well-stocked produce sections with fresh vegetables, fruits, meats, grains? Nope. These are the food deserts- a phrase popularized in the U.S. by researcher Mari Gallagher, according to reporter Jennifer Wehunt (

Of course it follows that citizens without access to healthy foods are more likely to exhibit diabetes, heart disease, and cancers, while other factors associated with poverty, of course, also contribute.

Access to food and other community resources has, coincidentally, been a focus of our work with older residents and city officials in Linton, Indiana of late. Today, March 15, is the last day of an on line survey process designed to gather data from Linton residents on a broad range of mobility issues.

Hence the title of today’s blog – food and feet.

I can clearly recall childhood memories of older people pulling small metal carts filled with a grocery sack or two on neighborhood sidewalks. (Do they even sell these things anymore?) And I can picture Mrs. Lovall walking daily to the Jewel Tea. Likewise, one of my primary household roles was to run down to Jewel to pick up forgotten items, bread, milk, and cigarettes for my mom and dad. The store was about two blocks from home. Our one car was utilized by my dad to get to the train station to catch the South Shore or drive himself to the steel mill where he worked. We were a one car family for many years.

In preparing the survey for Linton, I had occasion to visit the public library to consult old city directories about downtown businesses. According to the 1939 directory, a circle drawn twelve blocks from the heart of the downtown in all directions included 32 groceries! That is almost inconceivable today and, in a few years, won’t reside in community memory at all. So we asked, in the survey, “Can you walk safely to a grocery store?” 36% reported in the affirmative. Perhaps not too bad, but a far cry from what would have been likely near 100% in 1939.

What is the distance between food and feet in your community? Perhaps the increasing distance has helped “fuel” the epidemic of obesity in Indiana and elsewhere. The recent AdvantAge survey of older Hoosiers (60+) revealed that one in four were told by their doctor that they were overweight or obese. The rate averaged as high as 30% in two areas of the state, and as low as 21/22% in two other areas.

The recent flurry of interest in conducting community audits for walkability seems entirely justified. Good sidewalks are a critical piece of the puzzle. In Linton, next to distance itself, crumbling or non-existent sidewalks was the second most commonly cited reason for not walking to common destinations.

In the Brooklyn food desert projects, community activists are pursuing multiple strategies to improve access to healthy food. They are building on the city’s longstanding and creative urban gardens traditions (significantly threatened from time to time by development pressures). They are developing regular farm stands to bring in fresh produce and employing volunteers to complete a delivery chain that runs from the large produce distribution houses directly to elder residents, who will weekly purchase a box of fresh fruits and vegetables delivered to their door. Last week I had the privilege of working with ten young idealists in the city to help them effectively tap the deep well of experience and skill represented by elder residents in the neighborhoods – a “civic engagement” initiative funded by the Atlantic Philanthropies to Terry Kaelber’s organization ( ).

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