FLINT, MI – Low-income and minority Flint neighborhoods have the least access to healthy and affordable food options, a new study from Michigan State University has found.
Rating available choices at a total of 265 Flint food retailers – including grocery stores, liquor stores and gas stations – researchers found that areas with the highest percentage of socio-economic distress and highest percentages of African-American residents have the least access to healthy foods.
The study also showed that the number of liquor stores was highest in these communities, with no nearby supermarkets.
“We can now say exactly where the inequalities are and also show how those inequalities are based on race and income,” said Rick Sadler, assistant professor in the MSU College of Human Medicine’s Division of Public Health.
Neighborhoods along Carpenter Road on Flint’s northeast side, Atherton East Apartments on the southeast side of the city, and the region just north of Flint’s downtown core are some of the areas where healthy options are most lacking, Sadler said.
And where healthy food is sold, prices are often raised, he added.
While previous studies have shown food deserts – areas lacking nearby nutritional options – in Flint, Sadler said his study is the first to combine data collected from Nutrition Environment Measures Survey in Stores with mapping software. The survey tool measures the actual nutritional environment in select stores to figure out if healthy, affordable options exist.
“Somebody may briefly see this study and think, OK, we already knew this … but previous studies have looked at food access from a 10,000-foot view,” Sadler said. “Here we’re at 1,000 feet, actually examining what’s in any food retailer, be that a gas station or liquor store.”
Findings from the study – co-authored by Erika Shaver, a researcher at the University of Michigan, and published in the Public Health Nutrition journal – are now being used to bolster food options at seven retailers in the city’s hardest-hit areas, Sadler said.
Through MSU’s “Refresh MI Store” initiative, researchers will help select corner stores to buy freezers and stock up on more healthy food options such as fruit, vegetables, whole-grain bread and low-fat milk, Sadler said.
Adding that Flint is currently working to combat the disparities in the city’s nutritional landscape with its “Imagine Flint” master plan, Sadler said the city is still feeling the effects of “bad urban planning from 50 years ago.”
“Both [Atherton East Apartments and Carpenter Road neighborhoods] were built on the fringe of the city … not a part of the urban fabric where resources are easy to access if you don’t have a car,” he said.
Following Flint residents’ exposure to lead in drinking water beginning in 2014, Sadler said the lack of adequate food is especially concerning, as proper nutrition can help to mitigate the negative effects of lead contamination, particularly among children.
Meanwhile, projects are sprouting up across the city to supplement the city’s dwindling affordable food options.
While two grocery initiatives inch toward completion on the city’s north side, a permanent base for two food access initiatives – Flint Fresh Mobile Market and Veggie Box – is set to open in early June.
Dubbed “Boxes of Hope,” free food pantries through Well of Hope Ministries are also available near the corner of Alma and Martin Luther King on Flint’s north side and Monteith and Dougherty near the city’s core.
A community-driven initiative, the pantry boxes are available year-round for residents to give and take food items, said Program Coordinator Chia Morgan.
“I started [Boxes of Hope] because pockets are always open to help our neighbors during holidays, but not all year. I’ve seen people literally eating out of the trash to meet their needs,” Morgan said. “Everyone who needs help doesn’t need the support of a soup kitchen but may be in between checks and need an additional side for dinner, need to grab something quick to help them maintain their feeling of autonomy.”