27 Investigates

Is Youngstown really a food desert or is there another reason people aren't buying produce?

There are four grocery stores in Youngstown -- one on each side

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) - Now that land contracts are being regulated in Youngstown, the community group ACTION (Alliance for Congregational Transformation Influencing Our Neighborhoods) is focusing on the city as a food desert.

Youngstown defines "food desert" as an area more than a mile from a grocery store -- but distance may not be the number one reason low-income people aren't buying fruits and vegetables.

The term itself, at least in Youngstown's case, may be misleading. "Food desert" makes it sound like there are no grocery stores available, which is not the case. There are four -- one on each side of the city.

"We believe the primary impediment to that is cost," said Ian Beniston, with the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation (YNDC).

Along with cost, other factors are education, transportation and access.

Rose Carter, with ACTION, said starting in May, there will be pop-up markets around Youngstown, similar to one in June of last year at the B&O Station downtown.

"A huge part of it is access. It was a lot easier when the Bottom Dollars were open over there," said Dave Kamphuis, pastor of Martin Luther Lutheran Church in Youngstown's Newport neighborhood, where he said 25 percent of households have no car.

Kamphuis also co-chaired ACTION's Food Desert Task Force, where transportation is often discussed.

"You know, 'When are the buses available? When do the buses run? What are the buses' schedules? Where are the crosswalks for people?'"

To help with cost, YNDC and Mercy Health have what's called the Double Up Program. When people use their SNAP cards to buy produce at eight area grocery stores and three farmers markets, they get $5 vouchers for every $5 they spend -- up to $10 a day.

"It's not that they necessarily don't want to buy apples, they don't want to buy oranges or lettuce, it's that they have a limited budget," Beniston said.

He said an area of Youngstown that could support another grocery store is the west side along Mahoning Avenue. He said there are enough people there and there is enough income to make some money.

The Produce Perks SNAP Double Up program is available at the following locations:

-- Save-A-Lot grocery stores at South Avenue, Lincoln Knolls, Gypsy Lane and Warren

-- Three Sparkle grocery stores at Cornersburg, South Avenue and Warren

-- The Cultivate Co-op Cafe on Elm Street in Youngstown

-- Three farmers markets during the summer


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