Food deserts are a big problem for many of Hamilton County’s impoverished families, but ongoing research suggests officials may be overlooking mobility when attempting to pinpoint neighborhoods that lack access to healthy foods.
University of Cincinnati professor Michael Widener is heading research that looks into how mobility can alter perceptions about food deserts. So far, his findings have suggested that some people may have access to healthy foods throughout their daily commute despite being classified as living in a food desert.
Widener explains the research is necessary to make identifying food deserts more accurate. “In previous work and when I was doing my dissertation, I was noticing how a lot of food desert research failed to take into account the dynamics of everyday urban life,” he says. The observation led Widener to incorporate those dynamics, particularly people’s movements throughout the day, to see how they impact people’s access to food.
Still, Widener cautions that his findings don’t dismiss the problems caused by food deserts: “Of course, there are a lot of assumptions being made, like are (these commuters) totally drained after work? The biggest (assumption) is of course that (someone has) a car.”
Widener says his findings could impact how public officials approach food desert policies. He points to potential stopgap measures, such as better access to public transportation, that could alleviate the pains of living in a food desert while a more permanent solution is put in place. Widener argues these policies could make financial sense: Considering how many potential costs a food desert can bring on a community, it might be cheaper for a city to build a bus route and encourage better ways to load groceries into buses. Widener knows these aren’t perfect solutions, but he thinks they could provide some aid in a bogged-down political climate that often results in sluggish policy changes.
There is a caveat: Widener acknowledges research has so far been inconsistent as to whether access to healthier food actually leads to healthier results. Eventually, he wants to research what actually causes healthier results and whether broader economic factors, such as poverty, play a more important role. That could give officials a clearer picture on which policies work and which don’t.
The first part of Widener’s research came out in a January paper that looked at auto commuters’ access to food, and the next part will look at public transportation’s impact. The research project is using local transportation data from The Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments.
Food deserts are neighborhoods that lack access to fresh, healthy foods. In Hamilton County, many of the identified food deserts are in neighborhoods on the city’s west side, including Price Hill and Queensgate. Cincinnati’s food deserts are just one problem being addressed by Plan Cincinnati, the city’s first master plan in more than 20 years (“Core Future,” issue of Sept. 5).
Part of the parking plan proposed by City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. on Feb. 19 (“City Manager Proposes Parking, Economic Development Plan,” issue of Feb. 20) would also build a modern grocery store with access to fresh fruits and vegetables in Downtown.
In a 7-0 vote today, City Council’s Budget and Finance
Committee approved development plans for Fourth and Race streets to
build a downtown grocery store, 300 luxury apartments and a parking
garage to replace Pogue’s Garage.
Following the city’s $8.5 million purchase of the
property, the project will cost $80 million. The city
will provide $12 million through a five-year forgivable loan, and the
rest — $68 million — will come from private financing.
The committee hearing largely focused on the downtown grocery store, which Odis Jones, the city’s economic development director, called the “next step” of the city’s overall plans to invigorate residential space and drive down office vacancy downtown.
Development company Flaherty and Collins will oversee the grocery store project, which was originally attached to the city’s plans to semi-privatize its parking assets.
The grocery store will be 15,000 square feet — slightly smaller than the Kroger store on Vine Street, which is about 17,000 square feet — and open daily from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. It will be run by an independent operator, which is so far unnamed.
Flaherty and Collins CEO David Flaherty acknowledged it’s “a compact space,” but he said it will be enough space for a “full-service grocery store” with all the essentials, including fresh produce.
The grocery store will be at the base of a new, 30-story residential tower, which will include 300 luxury apartments and a pool.
Across the street, the city will replace Pogue’s Garage, which city officials have long called an “eyesore,” with a new garage.
The seven Democrats on City Council voted in favor of the plan, with Independent Councilman Chris Smitherman and Republican Councilman Charlie Winburn abstaining.
Democratic Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld questioned the funding sources for the project. City officials explained the $12 million loan will come through urban renewal bonds, which were previously set aside in an urban revival plan that encompasses all of downtown.
Jones said the money was going to a hotel-convention center deal when the city originally pitched the parking plan, but that deal has since collapsed.
City officials also noted the urban renewal fund, which is generated through downtown taxes, can only be used on capital improvement projects that support development and redevelopment downtown. Although the fund could be modified by City Council, it could never go to operating budget expenses such as police and fire.
Public dollars will go to the public garage, while private funds will carry the rest of the project.
The city’s $12 million investment comes through a five-year forgivable loan, which means the city will get its money back if parts of the project, including the privately funded grocery store, fail to meet standards within five years. After the five years are over, the loan is forgiven and any failure would result in a total loss on the investment.
Smitherman, who opposed the city’s parking plan, criticized the city administration for not presenting the current funding plan as an alternative to the parking plan: “What I’d like as a public policymaker is to see all of the options in front of me so that I can choose not just one option but maybe three options.”
Sittenfeld also questioned Flaherty about two previous projects Flaherty and Collins undertook that went bankrupt. Flaherty said the bankruptcies were mostly related to the economic downturn of 2008, but admitted the bankruptcies forced the company to make changes.
The city estimates the project will produce 650 construction jobs and 35 permanent, full-time jobs.
For the city, the project is part of a much bigger plan
that includes getting 3,000-5,000 new residential units built
downtown in the next five years to meet rising demand.
“It’s hot to be downtown right now,” Jones said.
Jones explained the property would have cost Cincinnati millions of dollars regardless of the city’s buyout and development plans because of a liability agreement the city made in the 1980s.
“When you start from
there and you gradually come up and look holistically at the project,
taking action was not only necessary, it was prudent,” he said.
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For many neighborhoods, the lack of access to fresh, healthy fruits, vegetables and foods is a big problem, but Councilwoman Laure Quinlivan is helping address the problem, at least in the short term, through mobile produce zones that will be placed in eight neighborhoods generally considered “food deserts.” Quinlivan acknowledges the solution is a stopgap, but Michael Widener, assistant professor in University of Cincinnati’s Geography Department, says it’s a start that could help many local residents as a better solution is worked on.
In a 2-1 ruling yesterday, the Hamilton County Court of Appeals reversed a lower court’s decision and said the city’s plan to semi-privatize its parking assets is not subject to a referendum and may move forward. Parking opponents are appealing the decision and pushing for a stay. For the city, the parking plan will potentially unlock millions of dollars over 30 years, including a $92 million upfront payment. But opponents argue the terms of the deal, which include increased parking meter rates and operation hours, will hurt downtown business. The ruling also returned the city’s emergency clause powers, which the city says allow it to bypass a 30-day waiting period on implementing laws and make laws insusceptible to referendum.
City Council unanimously approved a development deal for Fourth and Race streets downtown to build a grocery store, luxury apartment tower and garage to replace Pogue’s Garage. With council approval, construction could begin late this year, with developers hoping to finish in 2015. The deal will be headed by Indianapolis-based development company Flaherty and Collins. The city’s share of the $80 million deal will be $12 million, paid for with a five-year forgivable loan financed by urban renewal funds, which are generated through downtown taxes and can only be used for downtown capital projects.
Commentary: “‘Jobs’ Budget Attacks Women’s Health Options”
The first mayoral candidate forum is tonight at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital MERC Auditorium at 620 Oak Street from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Candidates Roxanne Qualls, John Cranley, Jim Berns and Stacy Smith are scheduled to participate.
After nearly six years of no pay increases for non-union workers, Hamilton County commissioners approved raises for some county employees yesterday. The raises will be merit-based, but they will not exceed 3 percent of what the county pays in wages each year.
Few owners actually register their exotic animals. The state began requiring exotic animal registration after a man in Zanesville, Ohio, released 56 exotic animals and committed suicide.
Pending approval from the board of trustees, the University of Cincinnati is hiring Beverly Davenport Sypher as senior vice president for academic affairs. Previously, Davenport Sypher was the vice provost for faculty affairs at Purdue University.
An ongoing study found women who are denied abortions have poorer health and are more likely to live in poverty two years on.
In Japan, cyclists can now store their bikes in underground robot caverns.
Updated at 11:10 a.m.: Added information about first mayoral candidate forum.