Grocery closures create growing food deserts in Anderson

Several times throughout his workday at the Village Pantry on the west side of Anderson, Derik Jones sees mothers come in to buy the week's groceries from the store's meager options.

"There's not really anywhere for people to buy groceries if they have to walk around here," he said. "They come in and they spend a lot of food stamps here."

As grocery stores continue to close throughout the city, residents who don't have reliable access to transportation have seen their options for local groceries continue to dwindle. Target in Applewood Centre and the Harvest Market on Cross Street have closed in the past year alone,

And as grocery stores leave, more and more areas of Anderson turn into what the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls "food deserts."

A food desert is an area of low income where at least 33 percent of the area's residents live more than one mile away from a supermarket or large grocery store that offers fresh foods and vegetables, which are considered more healthy than canned or frozen food offered at small convenience stores or gas stations, such as Ricker's or Village Pantry. For rural areas, the distance used to determine a food desert is extended to 10 miles.

According to the USDA, areas on the east, south and west of Anderson's downtown are considered food deserts. The downtown area of Elwood also falls into the category.

The USDA further defines low-income areas as having a poverty rate of at least 20 percent or a median family income at or lower than 80 percent of the median income in a given area. Based on 2014 U.S. Census statistics, the most recent available, much of inner-city Anderson qualifies as low income.

Because the distance to supermarkets and grocery stores can be prohibitive for residents of food deserts who may not have transportation, they often rely on convenience stores or pharmacies to put food on their table or stop at fast food restaurants, which often offer less healthy options than home-cooked meals.

For instance, the shortest distance residents at Parkview Place in the heart of downtown can travel to reach a supermarket is 1.3 miles south to the Pay Less Super Market on Meridian Street. The next closest store is Strong's Market, 1.5 miles away at 1909 W. Eighth St.

A 2015 market research study funded by the Anderson Economic Development Department and conducted by Associated Wholesale Grocers concluded that downtown residents could support a grocery at the site of the former Walgreens pharmacy at 14th and Jackson streets.

Though there aren't currently plans to add to the city's grocery options, Ricker's Oil Co. is working to offer more healthy options at its convenience stores.

The locally owned convenience store and gas company joined last year with the Partnership for a Healthier America to focus on providing high-quality healthy and affordable food options.

The Partnership for a Healthier America is a program created in conjunction with Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign. The organization brings together public, private and not-for-profit leaders to work on strategies to combat childhood obesity.

As part of the commitment, children who visit one of the 56 stores in the Ricker's chain will receive a free piece of fruit. The company is also adding a new line of healthy and affordable food choices with a new line called Ricker's Fresh Market.

"We are absolutely thrilled to be a part of this initiative and to be able to provide Hoosiers with fresh and healthy food options of fruits, vegetables and made-to-order meals at our convenience stores," Quinn Ricker, CEO of Ricker's Oil Co., said. "We have been developing these efforts for a long time and are now eager to join the movement for a healthier America."

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