University of Vermont

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Bringing Food to the Desert

Island Pond grocery store
What’s for dinner? Outside Ted’s Market in Island Pond, Vt., food systems student Kristyn Achilich (center) gathers data from grocery shoppers. She’s part of a multi-state project trying to understand “food deserts”— food-scarce-neighborhoods that exist in inner-city Baltimore or the frozen reaches of the Northeast Kingdom. (Photo: Joshua Brown)

Linda Berlin opens the milk cooler in Ted’s Market in downtown Island Pond, Vermont, population 821. She takes out a gallon of two percent and starts reading the label to Marie Limoges, who carefully writes down its price, brand, and expiration date.

Then Berlin — a professor in UVM’s Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences and director of UVM's Center for Sustainable Agriculture — and Limoges — UVM class of 2012 and now a graduate student in dietetics — move on to collect data about the skim milk. Next up: frozen broccoli.

At the other end of the small store, Bill McMaster, a UVM Extension professor, gathers information about bread. Whole-wheat and white? Lowest prices? Brand? Two or three shoppers move through the aisles with blue hand-baskets, looking quizzically at these researchers with clipboards.

“We’re interested in figuring out how to get more healthy, affordable, and regionally produced foods into markets like this one,” says Berlin.

As a first step, they want to know more about the price and supply of eight foods that are for sale here — a “market basket,” they call it, that includes ground beef (lean or not), broccoli (with or without cheese sauce), and peaches (canned with sugar or not). And they want to talk with local people who come to the store — to learn how they get (or fail to get) food now.

Into the desert

Outside, fine snow sweeps out of the spruce-fir woods and down Cross Street, the wide road through town. It’s cold and quiet; just a few people are out, readjusting snowmobiles on their trailer. It doesn’t look like a desert.

Yet, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Island Pond is a kind of desert. A food desert.

Defining a food desert is an inexact science at best, but the basic point is clear: these are communities with many low-income people — and few or no places to buy affordable, healthy food.

In the Ted’s Market parking lot, Island Pond resident Melanie Yasharian holds a small bag of groceries. “I just came in to pick up a couple of items,” she says — and patiently answers questions being asked by Kristyn Achilich — a graduate student in UVM’s new food systems master’s program — about her food buying habits and challenges.

Done with the survey, Yasharian volunteers to tell me her story: how she works hard to feed her two children, ages 2 and 3, now waiting in the car.

“I feel very lucky, “ she says with a broad smile as the wind whips snow and grit over our heads, “we have a large garden, we do a lot of canning, we started a root cellar this year, we freeze a lot, and we raise all our own meat; we don’t buy any meat at the store. We raise chickens, turkeys, and pigs, and my husband is a hunter and so we have venison,” she says.

But it’s not easy. “I do find it hard in town to get a variety of vegetables or fruits,” she says, and, “it’s extremely expensive to eat healthy and to provide your kids with healthy and with a variety.”

Where to shop?

And many of her neighbors probably have a harder time than she does. According to USDA statistics, all of the people who live in and around Island Pond, 1,260 people, have “low access” to food — meaning that a large grocery store is not within easy driving distance. Melanie Yasharian says she drives to St. Johnsbury, 20 miles away, to do some grocery shopping.

Of these 1,260 people, 241 of them, about 20 percent, are low-income. Many have limited transportation to get to the store, which means if they’re going grocery shopping at all, it’s likely to be at Ted’s Market or the other small food store two blocks down, at the other end of the commercial district. Here, Kingdom Market has a large “Welcome Ice Fishermen” sign inside the front entrance.

Kingdom Market sells many of the same foods and brands as Ted’s. And this is not surprising. Both stores are supplied by the same out-of-Vermont distributor.

Heading the other way on Route 114/105 out of Island Pond, it’s not too many miles to Interstate 91, and, from there, south to Boston and global markets beyond. And that’s the route, except in reverse, that much of the food that fills these stores’ shelves traveled.

“We have these two independently owned stores in Island Pond that are a component of our research,” Berlin says, noting that the owners of both stores have been willing partners and supporters of the project. These are the only two grocery stores in all of Essex County, the least populous county in New England, deep in the heart of Vermont’s famed Northeast Kingdom.

Food security

Unlike a spate of recent efforts to simply improve what is available at stores — so-called “healthy retailer” projects — Berlin’s research is far broader and more complex.

Island Pond is one of nine sites, three rural and six urban, throughout the Northeast that are being studied under the leadership of Stephan Goetz, a professor at Penn State. Drawing experts from the USDA and several universities, including UVM’s Linda Berlin and her students, the team’s goal is to enhance what they call “food security” in “underserved” places — often poor, urban neighborhoods — in a new way.

The researchers want to link what have often been seen as separate problems. On the one hand, 12 percent of the population in the Northeast, more than seven million people, are food insecure, according to the USDA. This means they face a challenge getting healthy, affordable food — and all the health problems, like obesity, hunger, and diabetes that are associated with this challenge.

On the other hand, regional farmers are struggling to stay in business, the land base for agriculture in the Northeast continues to decline, and a large percentage of fruits and vegetables eaten here — that can be grown in the Delaware-to-Maine corridor — are transported from farms in the Midwest, California, Mexico, and other parts of the world, using large amounts of fuel.

The researchers want to show that both problems can — and maybe need to be — addressed together. They’re exploring the entire supply chain, from farmer to distributor to retailer to consumer. The plan: build a powerful model of how the whole system works. The hope: enhance the supply and availability of foods grown in the Northeast region.

“Why are there not more regionally produced foods in these stores?” Berlin wonders. “We’re looking for the pressure points,” she says.

“We’re taking a systems approach,” she says. “If your supplier is in Boston, let’s go to the supplier and find out how they decide what to carry.”

“We can tighten the scale of the food system,” says Achilich, to help both low-income consumers on one end and farmers on the other. In an era of climate change and water shortages, the research team is testing the idea that regionally produced food — in place of globally produced foods — can alleviate environmental problems while improving food access and affordability for struggling communities.

This is the end of the second year of a five-year project funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — and a key first step of building an insightful model of the food system, Berlin says, is listening carefully to the people who are buying the food.

Near the shopping carts at Kingdom Market, Kristyn Achilich is collecting more information with help from life-long Island Pond resident Bill Hawkins. He’s been working with the UVM team, reaching out to his friends and neighbors as they come in and out of the store, explaining the research project. They’ve been listening carefully to Sherman Allen, who came in “to get a few incidentals,” he tells me. He drove to the store from the settlement of West Charleston, eleven miles away.

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