COLUMBIA — Thousands of Columbia residents go hungry or have a have hard time getting to a grocery store, especially those without access to transportation.
In 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture labeled part of the city a food desert, an area where the majority of people below the poverty line live more than a mile from a grocery store and have poor access to transportation.
Residents without their own transportation often rely on city buses, but they often run late, have limited hours and don't reach all parts of the city.
CoMo Connect — a revamped transit system that, if approved, would expand routes and hours — could give residents better access to grocery stores that sell healthy foods. The new plan, which is set to launch in August 2014, has been discussed at a series of public meetings. The City Council will vote in February on whether to approve it. The proposal is budget neutral, meaning it's not expected to cost the city extra money.
As envisioned, CoMo Connect would create more than 30 transfer stations instead of just the one at Wabash Station. That is expected to increase the efficiency of the buses and eliminate long waits. Routes would also be extended to neighborhoods throughout Columbia that don't have access to buses. The hours of service would be extended from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and Saturday.
The proposed Gold Route, which would run through the food desert neighborhoods in downtown Columbia and parts of the First Ward, would make it easier for residents to get to and from the food desert area to other parts of the city, said Drew Brooks, multi-modal manager for the city of Columbia.
"This will open up the entire city to transportation," Brooks said. "On the neighborhood routes, we designed them so they have access to a ton of places. We've tried to design every route to have grocery stores or include places where food is available."
Improving access to Columbia is one of the main objectives of the new transit plan. It could help knit together the efforts of organizations that for years have been trying to improve access to healthy foods.
According to a 2009 report from the USDA Economic Research Service, 2.3 million, or 2.2. percent, of households live more than a mile from a supermarket and have no access to a vehicle. The report also says that in small towns and rural areas with limited food access, the lack of transportation infrastructure is the most defining characteristic.
Food deserts are linked to higher rates of obesity. The state Department of Health & Senior Services' 2011 Missouri County-level Study found that 25.1 percent of Boone County respondents were obese.
The lack of grocery stores causes residents to shop at places within walking distance of their neighborhoods — places such as convenience stores, drugstores and fast-food chains, which offer few healthy and affordable food options.
"They're going to Walgreens and buying chips and pop," said Scott Gordon, communications coordinator at the Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri. "They can't live on that stuff."
A poor diet that stems from lack of access can lead to obesity, which in turn raises the risk of diabetes and other chronic illnesses. The 2011 Missouri County-level Study found that 8.5 percent of Boone County respondents had been told they had diabetes.
Yet many organizations in Columbia are dialing in on the importance of health education and access to healthy foods. Centro Latino, a nonprofit organization in Columbia, was founded by Eduardo Crespi 13 years ago to help Latino immigrants integrate into American culture. Today, a large portion of its mission is health education and health literacy. Centro Latino is in the First Ward, where the food desert is mainly located, and raises awareness about health among residents without access to healthy foods.
"The public is demanding more fresh meals that are based on fruits and vegetables," Crespi said. "The demand is there; we just look for ways to outreach."
Crespi has implemented two programs: Kids in the Kitchen and Conversation and Food. The children's program meets a few times a week and teaches children to cook their own meals with the help of volunteers and learn the importance of a healthy diet. The Conversation and Food program meets once a month and brings together adults to cook dinner and discuss a health topic.
"It's not easy to compete with the biggest human feeding operations on the planet, like all the fast-food chains," Crespi said.
Another organization helping to increase access to healthy foods is the Columbia Farmers Market. In 2011, the market received a $41,791 grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farmers Market Promotion Program to help fund a bus route on Saturday mornings, with cooperation from Columbia Transit. It allows people living outside the bus route area access to the farmers market.
"Anytime you put a new service on the market, you hope people will use it," Brooks said. "The numbers were much lower this year than they were the year before. I would say it wasn't heavily used, and that could be for a number of reasons."
In 2012, the average number of monthly riders on the farmers market route ranged from 10 to 80, compared with zero to 40 in 2013. There were 343 riders in 2012 and 106 in 2013.
Corrina Smith, the market manager, said the farmers market also has an Access to Healthy Foods Program, which matches Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits up to $25 to spend at the market. To be eligible, applicants must already receive SNAP benefits and have children younger than 10.
Also, the Community Garden Coalition helps lower-income residents cultivate their own food through community gardening.
"It allows more people to raise their own food and provides them, especially youth, elderly and immigrant populations, opportunities they may not have at home," Lisa Griffith said. She has been working with the Community Garden Coalition since 2010, but the organization has been around for 30 years. It aims to increase education and awareness about growing food in the community, as well as access to healthy foods.
The image of hunger
"Hunger isn't only the lack of access. It also stems from lack of resources," Griffith said.
That makes it harder for people to afford fresh foods. Gordon, of the Food Bank, said that a lot of patrons in the past year were first-time visitors because "wages haven't kept up with prices."
"The increase that we've seen at the food pantry this past year, all of those are people that you would not expect to be patrons of a food pantry," Gordon said. "They don't fit the mold. Most of these are working people or people that recently lost their job."
Though only part of central Columbia has been designated a food desert, Gordon said that hunger has no boundaries. Demand for food at the pantries in Boone County under the auspices of the Food Bank rose 20.1 percent this year.
The food bank recently built football-field-size freezer and refrigerator units to store more fresh produce that patrons can pick up daily. The Food Bank receives support from local farmers, as well. The Columbia Farmers Market encourages its vendors to drop off at the Food Bank any extra food they have after Saturday morning markets.
"In my opinion, the largest health concern facing Columbia is diet. Either too much food, not enough food, or the wrong kind of food," Gordon said.
A downtown grocer
It's been almost 10 years since downtown residents have been able to swing by the Osco Drug store near Providence and Broadway to pick up milk, water or bread on their way home. The building has stood empty since the store's closing in 2004.
With the opening of Lucky's Market in that space in January, Columbia will have its first downtown full-service grocer since the downtown co-op closed in 1988 and Schnuck's grocery closed in 1993. Lucky's was founded by a couple in Colorado and has since expanded to four locations, including Columbia.
"We believe that our particular concept would thrive there, being in the center of the community, next to a big college and neighborhoods," said Bo Sharon, founder of Lucky's Market. "Our intent is to bring natural and organic foods at conventional prices."
Lucky's will accept SNAP benefits, or food stamps, for low-income residents. Lucky's also has made local produce part of its identity. Sharon said the company had already been in touch with local farmers.
"The people that live in neighborhoods in the food desert, and even people downtown, ones who don't have bikes or transportation at all, will see a real change in a way their food buying goes," Gordon said. "They'll go to Lucky's and improve their diet. To have that option there will be great."
It's just another piece of the bigger picture that Crespi sees when he thinks about the challenge of getting people to eat more healthy foods.
"We have to create environments to help look at food and nutrition with other eyes, more than just the taste of a hamburger," he said. " The main idea is, 'What am I doing with my life?' It is the decision of a person or individual to change their eating habits."
Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.