Wichitans face 44 square miles of ‘food deserts’ in low-income areas

Wichita has 44 square miles of food deserts – low-income areas where residents have little to no access to healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables, a study presented Monday by the Health & Wellness Coalition of Wichita showed.

In an urban area, a food desert is defined as an area more than one mile from a full-service grocery store. Here, those areas are concentrated in south, central, north and parts of west Wichita.

Three-quarters of retail food stores carried common items such as canned vegetables, soda, whole milk and canned tuna. Less than a quarter of the stores carried items such as chicken thighs, lean beef and whole-wheat pasta.

The study said convenience stores make up 40 percent of food retailers, but less than half offer fresh fruit and only 9 percent sell fresh vegetables. And fresh produce may be more expensive there.

When residents in some of the lowest-income areas are able to buy things such as fresh bananas, they might have to pay four times more than residents in wealthier areas of the city.

For example, the study showed the average price of a pound of bananas was $1.99 at convenience stores, 52 cents at grocery stores, 50 cents at superstores and 67 cents at ethnic stores. The data was collected in January and February.

The coalition conducted the study “to see if healthy eating was accessible,” said coalition chairwoman Mim McKenzie. “We went out and wanted to know what is out there regarding our food system, retail only. This does not include any food pantries or farmers markets.”

The study looked at 277 stores. In addition to convenience stores, 23 percent were other retailers where consumers could buy some grocery products, such as a Walgreens; 20 percent were specialty and ethnic stores; 14 percent were grocery stores; and 3 percent were superstores.

Within each of the categories of stores, there was often a wide range of prices for fresh produce.

“Food becomes a complicated subject because it is not just about diversity, it is also about transportation, it is about social economics and how people are getting there (to the stores),” said Sedgwick County Commissioner Tim Norton.

“If you talk nutrition, how do you prepare the food? Can you even buy it? If you could afford to buy it, is there a place to buy it?” he said.

The study was prepared by Sharon Johnson-Hakim of the department of psychology at Wichita State University.

“The goal of the community food assessment was to look at resources that residents have for living and maintaining a healthy life,” Johnson-Hakim said. “A measure of that success is their access to healthy and affordable foods. I was struck by the price difference of foods and where they were found in the city. To me, the data is really a starting point. The survey was to find out what is out there and evaluate our community.”

As Johnson-Hakim visited various stores, she said, she often engaged in conversation with the owners.

“They told about the different barriers they faced in stocking healthier foods like fresh fruit and vegetables,” she said. “One of the reasons convenience stores charge more is that they don’t sell as many bananas and have to cover the cost of loss. The data gives us a great picture of where we stand and opens the door for all the stakeholders – for not only the consumers but store owners, those who work in the stores and observe customer choices and policy makers.”

Norton said that some areas of Wichita have old grocery stores.

“But they are tired and old and very small. And they don’t carry full selections like a superstore, and why?” Norton said. “You can look at places like Douglas and Meridian where there is an old Dillons store that has been abandoned for a long time. And as I look at the map, that is a place where there is a food desert. The full-service grocery store has gone away, and now (those residents) are lacking and pushed out towards the suburbs to find anything.”

One solution might be to introduce food trucks into neighborhoods, said Claudia Blackburn, director of the Sedgwick County Health Department.

But if that were the case, said City Council member Lavonta Williams, “What do you want to change? We are probably going to be looking at a food policy regarding food trucks. Are the food trucks going to be bringing in fresh fruits and vegetables, or are they going to be bringing in all the other fast food that the community wants? We have to look and see how a policy can be involved. All over the country, (cities) are beginning to make policies about food trucks. Can we have some that have fresh fruits and vegetables?”

“Well, if they are all Hidden Valley trucks, everyone will love them,” Norton said as the 18 people who had gathered for the results of the study chuckled.

McKenzie said the group plans to start a grassroots campaign to help educate the public about the results of the study through neighborhood association and ministerial leagues.

“Our first step is to educate, refer to the report and then start a conversation,” she said.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle