COLUMBIA — Bill Easley, 70, gripped his cane and hobbled slightly as he paced around his living room. The Army veteran injured his leg two years ago, and it never healed properly.
A wooden ramp leads up to his front door to help him get to his driveway, but Easley has trouble getting out of the neighborhood. He doesn’t own a car, and the bus route he once took to the grocery store was discontinued.
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“I can get four rides a month, but I don’t want to use them up because I might have an emergency,” he said.
The Central Missouri Area Agency on Aging provides Easley with rides to his doctors, the hospital and, when he can spare them, the grocery store.
“Four rides ain’t very much,” he said.
Like others without cars, Easley struggles to get to the grocery store. Often, his friends and neighbors drive him around town.
“I used to walk a lot and jump on a bicycle, but I’m having trouble now,” he said. “I’m not the only one having trouble.”
Easley's home on Cook Avenue is situated in one of Columbia's "food deserts."
Experts coined the term "food desert" for areas where residents have difficulty accessing fresh produce and other healthy foods. Cars can cross them with ease. Walking through them takes time, and carrying groceries into them requires energy.
Without a car, it's a struggle for Easley to access fresh, affordable produce.
Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhoods, an advocacy group, was formed in 2010 to lay the groundwork for the local obesity initiative financed with a $400,000 Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to fight obesity with local policies.
The Columbia group PedNet, an advocacy group for bicycling networks, received the grant in 2008. Ian Thomas, executive director of PedNet, is also project director for the obesity grant.
In 2007, the foundation committed $500 million to help reverse the childhood obesity epidemic by 2015. The national campaign has 50 cities, including Columbia, working to encourage healthy eating and active living policies and striving for environmental-change initiatives.
The grants target children and families, specifically those who are at risk for obesity because of race, income and geographic location. Columbia was one of nine places in the U.S. that received the grant in 2008. Since then, 41 other communities have begun exploring their own ways to create policies designed to promote health.
Recently, Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhoods has used the phrase "food desert" to describe parts of Columbia, particularly neighborhoods in and around the First Ward.
Just because there's food in the inner city area doesn't mean it's healthy. An area might be abundant in fast food restaurants but still be considered a food desert.
Karl Skala, a member of Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhoods and a former city councilman, plans to help create a food policy council for Columbia that would address a variety of issues related to food — including potential policy changes.
Eventually, the policy council might help identify specific criteria for identifying Columbia's food deserts. Skala said characteristics of food deserts include lower incomes and busy highways but mostly a lack of access.
“Almost any area that you can think of that you have to have a vehicle in order to get food would qualify as a food desert,” he said. “It’s just easier to get through the desert if you have a car.”
According to Skala, the city’s biggest food desert is located near the center of downtown. The 1993 relocation of Schnucks from Providence Road and Broadway to Forum Boulevard created a void of healthy fruits and vegetables. Several years later, Nowell’s grocery store on West Worley Street became the home of what is now the Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services, and the desert spread further.
“The only way that they can get food easily is grow it themselves or to go to the convenience store — and that’s not a healthy alternative,” Skala said.
Because of his minimal shopping opportunities, Easley stocks up on food. When prices are reasonable and rides are available, he likes to buy grapes and bananas. Fruits and vegetables are perishable, though, and that makes stocking up difficult. He usually buys canned foods.
“A can will last me two meals,” Easley said. “I put it in a resealable container and then eat it the next day. Today I opened one, and I’ll save it for tomorrow.”
He prepares spaghetti, loves to eat chili and always saves his leftovers.
“They had ground chuck for two-something,” he said. “Then they had some hamburgers in a package for $1.89. It might not have been as good, but it served me.”
Eduardo Crespi of Centro Latino is taking a direct approach to solving the food desert problem. When completed, his Comedor Popular, or People's Diner, will allow those within walking distance to purchase produce there.
“It’s nothing huge," Crespi said. "We’re not opening a Super Walmart or anything like that, but it is also a pilot for what we see as the future distribution center where we can distribute different fruits and vegetables.”
Crespi said the people Centro Latino serves often drive to Moser’s or Aldi on Business Loop 70, or they walk to Walgreens, gas stations and liquor stores. Easley’s home is closest to Moser’s, but it’s still too far for him to walk.
Those who live closer to the center of the city might rely on convenience stores for groceries. The Walgreens on Providence Road does not stock produce but has six freezers full of food. Three freezers are dedicated to ice cream.
Lean Pockets, microwavable french fries and Jack’s pizzas line the shelves in the other three cases. Walgreens offers plenty to eat, but it’s not a place to find healthy, fresh foods.
“People eat every day, so they have to get food from somewhere,” Crespi said. “What we are doing is opening a place right in the neighborhood that will give people an alternative to get fruits and vegetables.”
Eventually, local farmers might be able to donate their produce to Comedor Popular.
“There are programs out there, like Weight Watchers and the Biggest Loser, but those programs are costly,” Crespi said. “We are bringing those ideas to the neighborhood and to the people who have less means than others.”
Crespi works to teach children about healthy eating and promotes the discussion of obesity among adults. Centro Latino also has a few plots in the Ash Street community garden.
Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhoods plans to encourage new community gardens throughout the First Ward. During the harvest near the corner of Ash Street and Garth Avenue, 40 neighbors piled up potatoes and plucked radishes from the ground in the middle of the First Ward food desert.
“We have grand ideas about how there should be a garden here, and there’s people here who need it,” said Lea Langdon of the Columbia Garden Coalition. “But if there’s not buy-in from the community, then it just doesn’t happen.”
Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhoods is researching the possibilities of putting fruit trees on public lands and piloting a youth-run farmers market in the Douglass Park neighborhood.
“This is a good neighborhood with good neighbors,” Easley said. “We want to leave it better than we found it — the neighborhood and Columbia.”