As the director of basic needs at United Way of Greater Cleveland, I lead the organization’s investments in food security, which means ensuring community members have access to healthy food for themselves and their families. I have visited many food pantries throughout Cuyahoga County. When you walk in, you quickly see how many young parents and their children, individuals with special needs and even our community’s senior citizens access the pantry to get the food they need. For thousands of other Clevelanders, their access to food is changing as two of the four Cleveland Giant Eagle grocery stores close.
A recent food pantry visit made me realize I take my own trips to the grocery store for granted. I pulled into the parking lot of what looked like an abandoned building which once housed a corner store and a laundromat. This building was now a food pantry and the only place in the area to get fresh food.
While there, I witnessed an older couple loading up their cart. I learned the couple was married for approximately 50 years and were likely in their 80s. The couple doesn’t have any immediate family in the area and they live a mile away from the pantry. Bi-weekly, the elderly couple walks a mile to get their groceries. That day the couple trekked the distance in the snow and slush gifted by a Cleveland winter. They did it because they had to – because they lived in a food desert.
A food desert, defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is an area lacking access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk and other foods recommended for a healthy diet. Nationally these areas, according to the USDA, have a 42 percent lower median household income than nonfood desert neighborhoods and consistently see higher rates of poverty. However, food deserts have an abundance of corner stores specializing in snacks, processed frozen food, alcohol and cigarettes. Grocery stores are unable to generate enough revenue and keep business in food deserts and therefore do not provide residents the ability to get proper nutrition.
As more grocery stores are forced to close, one retailer has become a staple in Cleveland. Dave’s Markets continue to operate 14 grocery stores in Greater Cleveland increasing access in several neighborhoods, some of which are low income. Even with Dave’s dedication, many Cleveland residents lack access to fresh food due to barriers such as transportation. Convenient access to healthy and fresh food is critical and why United Way continues to invest basic needs.
United Way facilitates county investments to the Greater Cleveland Food Bank and The Hunger Network that operate area food pantries. In addition, we invest in 11 community programs striving to enhance people’s ability to access and eat nutritious food and reduce the influence food deserts have.
As a community member, get educated about the issue, research what is going on and learn how your community is responding. Take time to volunteer or donate to local organizations providing healthy food to those who need it. And when you hear about legislation impacting available funding for programs, speak up! It is amazing the power a quick call to your local legislator can have. If you’re not sure how to help, send us a note. The bottom line: it is our obligation to ensure food desserts don’t force any individual, family or senior citizen to go hungry due to lack of access.