Maybe you are one of the 30 percent of Gorge residents that worry about where your next meal will come from. Maybe you are a single parent with no car. You may live in a neighborhood with no grocery store where public transportation is limited. The nearby corner store is your primary source of food. The options are not healthy for you and your family: fried food, soda, candy, or salty, packaged items that leave you feeling empty.

This is the reality for many Gorge residents, especially in “food deserts” peppered throughout what most people think of as an abundant, food-rich place. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as a neighborhood “where a substantial number of residents have low access to a grocery store.”

Desert-loving ecologists take offense at the comparison between food scarcity and dry landscapes: deserts, they argue, are actually rich ecosystems worth preserving, and food deserts aren’t usually devoid of food, but littered with fast food restaurants and more unhealthy options than other places. Some call them “food swamps,” but swamps have value, too. Why do we compare our food-insecure communities to our least favorite ecosystems? Perhaps we should own — and fix — the landscapes we’ve built.

A national cross-sectional study found that low-income, urban neighborhoods of color have the least availability of grocery stores and supermarkets compared with both low- and high-income white communities. Low-income neighborhoods also have much higher rates of diet-related disease including cancer. Multiple studies have proven that your zip code has as much to do with your health and lifespan as your genetics.

Wasco County has 12 convenience stores, which is three times the national average (per capita). Forty-five percent of the restaurants in Wasco County are considered fast food. The City of The Dalles has one of the highest rates of childhood obesity in the state. Obesity is actually the most common health risk factor throughout the Gorge: in the most recent regional health assessment, more than half of the respondents reported being overweight.

So what can we do?

Change the food environment through an evidence-based approach that has worked in other communities around the world. OHSU’s Knight Cancer Institute put out a special call for grant requests to support healthy corner store projects to improve access to food in low-income neighborhoods in Oregon. Their goal? Reduce obesity to reduce cancer, and address health disparities by improving access to healthy food. It’s been proven that adults living in neighborhoods with supermarkets and grocery stores have lower obesity rates (21 percent) as compared to those living in neighborhoods with no supermarkets (32 to 40 percent).

Gorge Grown Food Network received the Knight grant to pilot the project in Allen’s Grocery and La Michoacana in The Dalles, which launched in June of 2017. Huskey’s 97 in Moro joined the project in August. So far it’s a win-win for farmers, store owners, and residents in need of better food access. The stores have stocked 20 new varieties of locally grown produce from nine local farms including cucumbers, organic cherries, herbs, organic green onions, lettuce, radishes, organic apples, tomatoes, summer squash, carrots and garlic.

What makes The Dalles Healthy Corner Store Project unique is the fact that it works in concert with Gorge Grown Food Network’s other programs. Veggie Rx enables healthcare providers to ‘prescribe’ vouchers for fresh fruits and vegetables to those facing food insecurity. This empowers low-income residents who may not otherwise be able to buy enough food — let alone fruits and veggies — to make easy, healthy choices. This project not only helps improve access to healthy food, but it teaches people how to best use the fruits and veggies. Tastings and demonstrations highlighting a monthly selection of seasonal produce are held at La Michoacana every second and fourth Wednesday of the month, at Allen’s Food Center every first and third Wednesday, and at local events and schools throughout the community.

Gorge Grown’s Food Business Incubator Program offers technical assistance to farmers and corner store owners. The Mobile Market helps with some of the distribution. And the Food Security Coalition, a network of more than 40 organizations working to end hunger and build a local food system, mobilize to spread the word about the project. Wasco County’s “Step it Up” program encourages The Dalles walking groups to stroll down to the store and grab a healthy snack. Local schools are encouraging students to try new veggies, and are sending flyers home in backpacks letting parents know that they can now access fresh produce at the corner store.

Students grow a row for Healthy Corner Stores

Wahtonka Community School is a unique charter school in The Dalles serving 55 students. Learning focuses on hands-on, project based skills, community service, and outdoor environmental studies. You might find science and nutrition being taught in the thriving school garden where students grow crops for the Healthy Corner Store Projects. Principal and teacher Brian Goodwin believes that students need to be engaged with their local food system. It’s a closed loop for some of the kids, many of whom are low-income. They grow and deliver the food with great pride, and often bring family members in to behold (and buy) the fresh veggies.

Krystal Klebes is a teacher at Wahtonka Community School. “Not only are our students learning how to use the produce they are growing to make healthy food through this project, but they are also learning how to invoice and perform quality control measures,” Klebes says. “We see the students applying this knowledge regularly, taking more ownership over the gardening process, and experimenting independently with making healthy meals and snacks with our garden gleans.”

Farmers Profit

First-year farmer Ryan Loop grows vegetables in Sherman County amidst fields of soft white wheat, most of which is exported. He was hauling veggies to multiple farmers markets up to two hours away. Healthy Corner Store Program Manager Silvan Shawe helped Loop connect to the three Healthy Corner Stores and the new Sherman County Farmers Market where he became an anchor vendor. Huskey’s 97 owner Carrie Hughes and Loop were a good match: Hughes had never bulk purchased produce at a wholesale price, and Loop had never sold outside of farmers markets.

Within just a few weeks, fresh veggies starting flying off the shelves at Huskey’s 97.

“I’m happy that my customers are able to have access to more healthy options,” Hughes says. “We are so rural that it’s hard to get a lot of variety, but this project has helped bring in new kinds of high quality seasonal produce. I’m happy that I can pass the wholesale price savings on.”

Hughes set up a new produce cooler with fresh “grab and go” fruit and veggie cups, as well as staples like peppers and tomatoes. She has to move some of the beer out of cold storage to stock more veggies, and she takes special orders from customers. More carrots? No problem!

Sherman County residents that are food insecure and low-income can get Veggie Rx vouchers right next door at the health clinic. “The best part is when I give a voucher and I hear someone say, ‘I haven’t had a fresh cucumber in years,’ says Caitlin Blagg, district administrator for Sherman County Health District.

“We have everyone from kids to seniors who are using the vouchers and benefitting from Veggie Rx,” Hughes says. “It really is making a difference in our community and I hope it continues.”

What’s next?

The goals is to expand the Healthy Corner Store project to all five counties in the Gorge, especially in the more food insecure areas of Skamania and Klickitat counties.

Sourcing produce in the winter will be a challenge. Nature’s Finest farm has committed to supplying storage crops like garlic and squash through the spring. With Veggie Rx, the new Hood River Winter Farmers Market, and the vibrant Healthy Corner Store Project, there is a growing demand for local food year-round, and our farmers need training and infrastructure to scale up. This means securing funding for things like workshops and hoop houses.

Our leaders, especially our elected officials and our health care providers, have a responsibility to address the inequitable conditions built into our communities. Sure, we need more bike lanes and affordable housing. Let’s also remember that 1 in 3 of our neighbors are hungry, and 1 in 2 are overweight or obese. Hunger and a lack of access to healthy food are the result of poverty and poor planning, and we can’t talk about food justice without acknowledging that we need more living-wage jobs.

While not the sole solution to the complexities of the obesity epidemic, access to nutritious and affordable food is an important component enabling community residents to make easy, healthy choices about their diets. Healthy food is — or should be — a human right.

Support for the Healthy Corner Stores Project comes from The OHSU Knight Cancer Institute Community Partnership Program, which is designed to build sustainable collaborations with Oregon communities by providing grants and other resources to foster development of community-identified cancer prevention, early detection, treatment and survivorship projects. The OHSU Knight Cancer Institute has made a decade-long commitment to invest in this program to develop robust, sustainable programs that benefit the health of all Oregonians.

Sarah Sullivan is the Executive Director of Gorge Grown Food Network. Gorge Grown’s mission is to build an inclusive and resilient food system that improves the health and well being of our community.

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