In the nine years Catalina Roblero has lived in Harrisburg she has struggled to buy fresh fruits and produce.
Lacking nearby grocery stores, she does most of the family shopping at corner stores, and bemoans that they mostly sell packaged and processed foods.
“I don’t like to give that to my family,” she said.
Roblero, a Guatemalan immigrant, doesn’t drive so it’s difficult for her to get to any of the grocery stores outside the city. Every now and then, she gets a lift to Walmart and stocks up, but most of the time it’s a struggle to buy fruits and vegetables.
“It’s really difficult to find fresh food and the small stores are so expensive,” Roblero said.
Roblero may not call it such, but she lives in a food desert — one of scores of communities across the commonwealth whose residents lack easy access to fresh, healthy food.
The idea of food deserts has been around for years, but recent data released by state health officials highlight the profound impact a mere few miles and change of zip code can have on the health of communities.
Three Harrisburg-area communities in particular — Steelton, Allison Hill and Harrisburg’s 17113 zip code — have been identified by the Department of Health and the Department of Human Services as having some of the highest rates of negative social conditions, such as poverty, crime, poor housing standards. These, in turn, have had a devastating impact on the health of these communities.
Residents in these neighborhoods report disproportionately high rates of chronic disease, including diabetes and cancer, as well as obesity and premature death.
The data shows the impact institutional racism and redlining have had on neighborhoods, but the lack of access to fresh food, in particular, underscores why food insecurity has become a social justice issue.
Lack of access to fresh wholesome foods coupled with poor eating habits — even more than access to healthcare or doctors — are increasingly being recognized as major contributing factors to the health of communities.
At one time, grocery stores were within walking distance to most neighborhoods and met the needs of urban residents. Over the decades, the stores moved out and the communities left behind were transformed into food deserts. Food advocates call them “food swamps.”
“It’s what you do find in some areas, a tremendous opportunity to eat poorly,” said Joe Arthur, executive director of the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, which provides food assistance to residents of approximately 27 counties. “You have fast-food chains that are there and always there because it’s profitable. There’s an abundance of cheap unhealthy food. All this could be just as damaging to people as a food desert.”
The primary outlet for residents in these communities is the corner store, which sell essentials like milk and bread, but arguably little more in the way of wholesome food.
“Corner stores provide a lot of food but it’s food that is not nutritions,” said Beverly Taylor, a Steelton resident and food justice advocate. “A lot of people here eat processed noodles or hot dogs and sausages and sweets and potato chips. You are not going to find fresh vegetables at the corner store.”
Taylor runs a food outreach program in Steelton through her husband’s church, New Jerusalem Outreach Ministries.
Food insecurity disproportionately affects Black and Latino households, but in particular, the young and the old.
“It’s a big hindrance to children who are trying to be healthy and to families that are trying to be healthy because there really are no healthy options,” Taylor said. “We have plenty of tattoo parlors, plenty of bars. You have vouchers for vegetables but you can’t find them at the corner store. As a result, most children are overweight and that contributes to their health. It’s all connected.”
For many families, the idea of buying farm-fresh vegetables is a foreign concept.
Jose Rivas knows this first hand.
Rivas, a Dominican immigrant, runs Rivas Grocery at 14th and Vernon streets with his father. His small store, located in one of the most beleaguered neighborhoods in Harrisburg, is stocked with snack foods, canned goods and packaged, processed foods.
“We don’t sell fresh fruits and vegetables,” Rivas said. “You have to sell fruit quickly, otherwise it goes bad. Around here people don’t want fruits and vegetables, so it goes bad. This is a small store. If I buy a lot of fruit, it will go bad.”
City officials say they are increasingly encouraging proprietors of corner stores to carry more fresh foods and less of the processed kind.
“We have to ask what can city government do to advocate for more responsible commerce,” said Nelva Wright, health officer for the city of Harrisburg. “It’s always been a challenge to promote healthy lifestyles and encourage our business communities to carry healthier foods, to change their sourcing and promote fresh food and not just the fast food culture.”
Wright said the city is expanding on initiatives already in place, such as food pantries and farmers markets, but education must be a key component.
“We have to educate children and parents,” she said. “Yes, it’s convenient to grab fast food but we really have to push to educate people on fresh options and make those things available to them. Also educate them on how to prepare these foods. You can give them all this fresh food but if they don’t know how to prepare it or what goes with what for meal planning, it won’t do any good. It can be very difficult to implement the new way of doing things at home.”
THE TRANSPORTATION FACTOR
One of the biggest factors in a family’s ability to eat healthy in a food desert is a family car. Many families simply can’t get to a grocery store.
Take Steelton, for example. The small borough has a car wash, tattoo parlors, auto repair shops, a couple of pizza joints, a Turkey Hill Mini Mart and a Dollar General.
But it has no grocery store. The nearest stores are five to six miles away, making a car — or at least public transportation — a necessity for food shopping.
“It’s really difficult. I know a lot of families that can’t get to the grocery store,” said Tyffani Robinson, a Steelton mother of four. “It’s tough. We’ve got to travel whether it’s going to Union Deposit or across the river or Middletown. Not everybody has a vehicle. It’s tough for these families. It’s a low-income borough and there aren’t many options. The only option is to go to a convenience store or Rite Aid, where they are going to spend more because it’s a convenience.”
Some turn to taxi services such as Uber and Lyft, but those aren’t options for everyone.
“It’s expensive and it’s scary, especially if you have a parent that can’t get out and they have to send a child,” Robinson said.
Children whose families have food insecurity face disrupted meals, even skipped meals. They often don’t have enough to eat, certainly not enough of the right foods.
The consequences manifest in poor academic concentration, behavioral issues and even childhood health problems, said Mick Iskric Jr., the Steelton-Highspire School District superintendent.
“A lot of those different things all come together,” Iskric said. “It’s all related to a lack of nutritious options beyond the school. I can’t put my thumb on it and say it’s all because of food insecurities but I can say it’s probably a major part of it.”
Iskric grew up a block away from the high school, but his experience in the 1980s reflects a vastly different time for Steelton families. For starters, Steelton once had a supermarket.
“Now the closest thing to a grocery store is the Dollar General,” Iskric said. “I’m not taking anything away from those entities, but they lack fresh produce. The things that are essential for child development. Those things are challenges… when kids come to school hungry.”
Almost every child in Iskric’s school district is enrolled in the federal school breakfast and lunch programs, but even that safety net bucks up against the impacts of a food desert.
“Sometimes what happens is a lot of our kids don’t always like the nutritious meals because they are not exposed to them on a regular basis,” Iskric said. “What happens is that they don’t eat all their lunch, and they are obviously not bringing something either, so our kids are hungry.”
Neville Williams worries about residents at the other end of the age spectrum.
A resident of Harrisburg’s 17113 area, which encompasses the community surrounding the governor’s mansion, Williams worries that elderly residents like her 96-year-old grandmother simply can’t find fresh food in the neighborhood.
The Family Dollar on Third Street is just about the only place in the neighborhood to even get milk and bread, but Williams said the prices are steeper than Walmart or a grocery store.
“This used to be a Weis but they moved out about 10 years ago,” said Williams, who recently stopped into the Family Dollar to pick up detergent and household cleaner.
“I wish it could come back. It’s really hard for all these elderly people. It’s really hard for my grandma to get the things she needs. You see all these elderly people with their buggies. It’s sad.”
FOOD DETERMINES HEALTH
Food insecurity continues to trend in the wrong direction. The economic hardship wrought by the pandemic in 2020 has resulted in a significant food insecurity increase for households with children across the country, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That increase was especially felt in Black and Latino households.
And that has health implications.
For instance, the vast majority of food intervention overseen by the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank deals with diabetic and pre-diabetic patients.
“That’s really been where our health issues are,” Arthur said. “Of all the conditions that diet can impact, the biggest one that jumps out is diabetes and folks on the path to diabetes.”
Pointing to a lack of supermarkets oversimplifies the problem of food insecurities. In fact, food desert communities like those in the Harrisburg region are served by a slew of charitable agencies and food pantries.
But free food distribution doesn’t necessarily solve the whole problem. Families may have cultural differences when it comes to foods; some may not even know what to do with a particular item.
“There are so many different factors,” Taylor said. “Sometimes pantries give out the same thing over and over so people accumulate certain items and they get tired of that. Just because people experience food insufficiencies doesn’t mean they don’t have preferences.”
FOOD: A SOCIAL JUSTICE ISSUE
Organizations like the Central Pennsylvania Food bank today are approaching the problem of hunger on several fronts.
Food advocates like Arthur are steering collaborative efforts involving public policy, health systems, hospitals, charities and other organizations to attack food insecurity from all sides.
No longer is the goal to give away boxes filled with food. Nutrition now matters, and Arthur said families are increasingly embracing the approach.
“Over time, demand and supply have walked in tandem,” Arthur said. “Clients who have relied on us have embraced those types of foods. It’s become a big part of our success. People that need food assistance are actually looking for those products… more fresh produce, 1 and 2 percent milk. We don’t just put food out there and say ‘Here you have to eat these things.’”
Charitable food giving has embraced the farm-to-table movement, and in areas such as Harrisburg, farmers’ markets and the urban homestead movement are slowly taking hold.
Approximately 26 community gardens and several farmers’ markets now serve Harrisburg, including the Allison Hill Farmers Market, which this summer set up tents filled with local produce every Friday afternoon.
Jacquie Rocker regularly traveled from her Wilson Park neighborhood in Harrisburg to take stock up on farm-fresh produce at the market.
She knows Harrisburg well and said it is going to take time to re-educate people on food and diet.
“It’s a hard sell around here,” said Rocker, clutching her bags of beets, sweet potatoes and tomatoes. “People around here eat a lot of processed food. It’s a societal thing. People have to be taught. There’s a lot of diabetes and heart disease around here. It’s because of the bad nutrition. It’s going to take a lot to bring people to a place where they say yes to this food.”
Food advocates have focused attention on ensuring these food outlets accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) payments.
They have also connected local growers with city residents to encourage residents to explore growing some of their own food.
“It’s the little things in that community that allow people to expand access to healthy food,” said Amy Hill, who serves on the steering committee for the Allison Hill Farmers Market and is president of the Broad Street Market Alliance. Hill is the director of Community Engagement & Advocacy for the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank.
The idea of a food desert might conjure up images of an economically depressed urban setting, but the fact is that food insecurity can be found anywhere.
Indeed, in Pennsylvania, rural areas have higher rates of food insecurity than urban settings.
“It’s not just a poor urban-area problem,” said Arthur, whose organization’s demographic studies show that food insecurity is higher among rural areas in the 27 counties it serves.
“That’s true across the country as well,” he said. “Suburban and exurban areas that most folks would not associate with food insecurities or hunger at all. You might live in an apartment complex near Hershey or near Camp Hill but these are places that you don’t think of hunger but we have significant populations living there that are food insecure.”
The big difference, Arthur notes, is the fact that food-challenged residents in Camp Hill or Hershey have an abundance of competitive supermarket options. Residents of areas such as Allison Hill and Steelton do not.
And while food insecurity has long been associated with the homeless, the vast majority of families that rely on the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank for their family’s sustenance are not homeless, but people in working households.
“It’s not a story about people that are homeless,” Arthur said. “It’s a story about a significant sector of our population that just doesn’t have enough money. Food insecurity isn’t so much about food. It’s about money. It’s about family resources.”
Beverly Taylor, the Steelton-based food advocate, bemoans that the borough council not long ago had earmarked funding for new development. A grocery market was in the pipeline, but in the end, the borough went with a senior center and the Dollar General.
“It’s all connected,” she said. “They really need a grocery store, a supermarket here so that when you run out of food, you have someplace close to home to get some nutritious food. We need to invest in something that is going to enhance the community.”