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Many lack access to healthy food in Rock County

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Ashley McCallum
Sunday, November 26, 2017

JANESVILLEKelly Klingensmith recently wanted to thank people who participated in public conversations about Rock County's health by buying them $25 grocery store gift cards.

That was trickier than expected, said Klingensmith, community health education coordinator at the Rock County Public Health Department.

How do you give grocery store gift cards to those in communities without major grocery retailers?

The conundrum sheds more light on an issue raised in the Rock County Community Health Assessment, commissioned by the Health Equity Alliance of Rock County. Orfordville and Clinton residents consider that lack of access as one of their main health concerns.

Beloit and Janesville residents noted obesity as a top concern in their communities, according to the health assessment.

Both issues are concerns for public officials because they often are connected and lead to increased health problems.

WHAT IS A FOOD DESERT?

In her research, Klingensmith learned that Clinton residents often travel to Wal-Mart in Beloit for groceries despite the presence of Clinton Foods, while Orfordville residents shop in both Janesville and Beloit.

In 2015, 29 percent of Rock County residents—more than 46,000 people—had low access to food, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Under the USDA's definition, urban areas with low access to food are located more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store. Rural areas with low access are 10 miles from a grocery store. Such areas sometimes are called "food deserts."

Lack of access to healthy food can lead to health problems, Klingensmith said. Among those, obesity remains the biggest issue.

Rock County is the second most obese county in the state, with 37 percent of residents having body mass indexes of 30 or more, according to county health rankings.

Traveling more than 10 miles to reach a grocery store is a reality for those living in the county's rural communities, Klingensmith said.

BY THE NUMBERS

Data from the USDA show:

-- In 2015, 11 percent of Rock County residents were considered low-income and had low access to food.

-- 3 percent of Rock County residents had no car and had low access to food in 2015.

-- 4 percent of seniors and 7 percent of children had low access to food in 2015.

-- In 2014, Rock County had 25 grocery stores, three superstores, 61 convenience stores and 104 fast-food restaurants.

Rock County has an aging population, Klingensmith said. She noted that senior citizens often have less access to transportation than other people, which exacerbates their problems if they also live far from grocery stores.

Children can suffer from other problems if they live in areas with low access to food and obesity issues.

Links between obesity and childhood trauma are becoming more apparent, based on the Adverse Childhood Experiences survey, said David Pluymers, assistant director of the health department.

The survey shows Rock County children experience trauma—from exposure to domestic violence or crime to abuse or neglect—at relatively high rates, Pluymers said. That could correlate with low-income households and households with low access to food.

With this month's closing of Pick 'n Save on Janesville's south side, more people will face the issue of food scarcity.

In 2015, the south side had a poverty rate of 20 percent or higher, according to the USDA.

HEALTH CONCERNS

For optimal nutrition, half of a person's grocery cart should contain fruits and vegetables, said Cynthia Stenavich, a nutritionist at SSM Health St. Mary's Hospital-Janesville.

The rest of the cart should contain lean protein, whole grains and some low-fat dairy, she said.

However, filling the ideal grocery cart can be a “real challenge” for people who are low-income, have low access to food or both, Stenavich said.

When people live near a convenience store or fast-food restaurant, they are more likely to go there for dinner than a grocery store, she said. And while some convenience stores offer fresh and frozen food, others do not.

Poor nutrition is linked to obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, Stenavich said.

And as the number of obese residents increases, chronic disease rates are likely to follow, Pluymers said.

For every 100,000 people in Rock County, 159 die from heart disease, 44.2 from stroke and 21.5 from Type 2 diabetes, according to data provided by the health department. Those three categories are higher than the respective rates for the state.

SEEKING SOLUTIONS

Health department officials hope to work with city planners and policy makers to create healthier environments for residents, said Abby Diehl, a health educator at the health department.

Beginning in January, Diehl will start meeting with the Health Equity Alliance's obesity work group, which aims to create feasible strategies to combat the county's obesity problem.

By December 2020, the group hopes to provide 10 new sites in Rock County that would increase residents' access to healthy, affordable food, according to the Community Health Improvement Plan, a document plotting the Health Equity Alliance's effort to improve the county's health.

Terry Nolan, a city of Janesville associate planner, is a member of the obesity group.

None of the city's plans directly addresses food deserts in the downtown area and south side, Nolan said.

Janesville offers tax increment finance incentives in the downtown area, which could attract grocery stores or specialty food businesses to the area, she said. On the south side, the city can help market the space once occupied by Pick 'n Save to potential retailers.

To improve food access, Nolan said cities have to play a collaborative and creative role to address cultural, socioeconomic and educational barriers.

“In the past, the approach to planning was having a land-use plan that provided for all the things you need in a community and a way to distribute those land uses in a logical fashion,” Nolan said.

“Now, I think planning is really starting to acknowledge the built environment has a huge impact on our public health, impact on environment, impact on society in general.”

A grocery/food-pantry model, in which one building provides both services, could diminish the shame that might be associated with visiting a food pantry and provide another grocery shopping option, Nolan said.

Community gardens and year-round farmers markets are also options for urban food deserts, Nolan said.

The obesity group also will explore options for rural communities, Diehl said. One option could be creating food hubs, where local markets or regional producers provide food to be sold at existing businesses.

Mobile markets, such as food trucks for groceries, could be explored as well, she said.

Many people with quick access to convenience stores are likely to shop there, Diehl said. Working with such stores and encouraging them to offer more grocery options and market them in an attractive way could increase access to healthier food.

Food access is about more than proximity, Diehl said. The Health Equity Alliance hopes to provide tools and resources to teach people how to shop for and prepare healthy food.

“As the health department, we are starting to see we need to focus on those upstream factors,” Klingensmith said.



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