Food access surveys inform next steps in Battle Creek and across Michigan

When J.R. Reynolds set out to learn how Battle Creek residents of the north side Washington Heights neighborhood shop for and prepare their daily meals, he discovered some truths that surprised him.

In his role as project manager for a survey called the Michigan Good Food Charter Shared Measurement Project, Reynolds talked one-on-one with people about how they access food, and what decisions and challenges they face in the process.

J.R. Reynolds was project manager for the Shared Measurement survey through Good Food Battle Creek.

“It was surprising to me that people were shopping at dollar stores and drug stores for their daily sustenance,” Reynolds says. When he was able to step back and consider “good food” through the lens of the low-income survey respondents, this choice made more sense.

“As a middle class person who has educated himself on issues related to nutrition,” Reynolds believes good food includes fresh fruits and vegetables, greens, and other farm produce. That’s vastly different from a definition that focuses on plentiful, cheap, and not rotten.

For some, food identified as “fresh” was simply considered not affordable.

“Folks in poverty understand that fruits and vegetables are things you need, but price and culture are barriers to gaining access,” says Reynolds. “On the other side, suppliers of food need to figure out more effective ways of getting information to the people.”

In Battle Creek, the Shared Measurement survey was administered through a grassroots organization called Good Food Battle Creek from spring to fall of 2017, and data was compiled and published in May, 2018.

The survey found that “people may tend to choose cheaper and more calorie-dense options over fruits and vegetables” and recommends identifying “barriers to consumption such as affordability, time constraints and food preparation capacity,” as they may be helpful in “designing strategies to comprehensively improve food access.”

And with that food access comes choice and opportunity to select products that can be healthful, as well as plentiful, and to do it close to home.

“Even if people don’t want to incorporate fruits and vegetables into their diet, everyone has the right to make that choice. So they should be able to make that choice in their own neighborhood,” says Kathryn Colasanti, an academic specialist for Michigan State University’s Center for Regional Food Systems (CRFS).

Measuring food access across the state

The CRFS, in collaboration with local food organizations, also measured food access through the Shared Measurement survey in Ypsilanti and Pontiac, focusing on smaller neighborhoods within each city.

As with Battle Creek, the intent was to get a granular feel for where residents shop, their proximity to stores, the time it takes to get there, their modes of transportation and the availability of fresh produce. Some questions were customized. The Ypsilanti survey, for instance, also asked about food pantry use.

While food access issues disproportionately affect low-income communities and people of color, almost 1.5 million Michigan residents were food insecure in 2015, according to the Food Access in Michigan Project. Food insecurity can result in poor diets, reduced food intake and even hunger. “For some people, there are trade-offs between paying for food and other expenses, such as rent and utilities. These are choices they shouldn’t have to make,” Colasanti says.

“We weren’t surprised people [in the Ypsilanti survey] were food insecure,” says Markell Miller, the director of community food programs for Food Gatherers, a nonprofit that serves Washtenaw County. “But the number was a lot higher than we thought – 60 percent.”Sprout and other Battle Creek farm growers harvest a variety of healthful foods.

The Ypsilanti survey – completed in 2016 – was administered at farmers markets, senior centers, low-income housing sites, food pantries and community events. “The surveys were helpful in confirming other data,” Miller says. “There are still a lot of people who struggle to make ends meet and aren’t getting assistance through food pantries in our community.”

The data highlighted an information gap . “The most common response was, they didn’t know about free grocery sites,” says Miller. This sparked an initiative to partner with health care providers in the area who make sure patients have access to food, including foods distributed through pantries. “Having someone else have that conversation with them helps to elevate the issue and get [those in need] connected to services.”

Transportation was also an issue – nearly one-third said they didn’t drive their own car to buy groceries. While those who didn’t often had friends or family who drove them, “there was a small percentage of people [for whom the lack of transportation] was a pretty big burden,” particularly seniors or people with disabilities navigating the bus system or bags of groceries. “We are still evaluating … the needs of people at housing sites who are low-income and have disabilities. What are we doing to best meet their food needs?”

Similar data justified a pop-up produce store outside a senior center in Pontiac, thanks to the efforts of Micah 6 Community, which aims to improve health and wellness in Pontiac, and its produce store, Sprout.

“The produce market is set up right outside” on Tuesday mornings, just in time for seniors leaving a meeting that ends at noon, “providing high quality, locally grown produce at a price that’s good for them,” says Jennifer Lucarelli, associate professor and chair of interdisciplinary health sciences at Oakland University and chairperson of “Healthy Pontiac, We Can!

Why is access to fruits and vegetables so significant?

“There’s a lot of research across all income groups that Americans are under-consuming fruits and vegetables. But there’s also a lot of research to show the health benefits of fruits and vegetables, so that context is one of the reasons for the focus on fruits and vegetables [in the survey] and as a marker for food access,” says MSU’s Colasanti.

In Battle Creek, data from the survey is being used to identify next steps, both immediate and aspirational, as well as resources to help boost food access and education. In addition to “usual suspects” for access, such as food banks and pantries, Reynolds wants to identify what he calls “unusual suspects,” or resources that are ready and willing, but not yet tapped into.

“There may be opportunities for for-profit businesses to inject themselves into the community,” says Reynolds. “They have charitable capacities but may need help figuring out how it can become a win-win. How can we help them achieve or maintain their bottom line while serving the underserved?”

Education and marketing are key ingredients in increasing access to healthy foods for people in Washington Heights, Battle Creek.

What is clear from the Battle Creek survey is the need for education and marketing about food preparation, which could make a big difference in helping potential customers feel comfortable purchasing fresh produce in place of familiar packaged processed foods, says Reynolds.

“Proper nutrition helps to improve health and well-being and is one of the biggest predictors of health outcomes and the prevention of diseases such as diabetes and heart disease,” says OU’s Lucarelli.

"When we are looking at food access and security, the inability to purchase food through conventional mechanisms [such as conveniently located grocery stores with appropriate transportation] becomes a social justice issue. Making sure people are set up to access food in traditional systems provides them with a dignified way of getting a healthful diet.”

This story is part of “Michigan Good Food Stories” a series that explores access, equity, and sustainability in Michigan’s thriving food economy. This work is made possible by Michigan Good Food and is supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Pam Houghton started her freelance career with essays in local parenting and lifestyle magazines. Over time, she transitioned to freelance-story writing on topics ranging from health, parenting and business to employment and technology. She also works in higher education, as an editor/writer/administrator of print and digital advertising.

Photos by Susan Andress