0 Comments · Wednesday, February 27, 2013
Food deserts are a big problem for many
of Hamilton County’s impoverished families, but University of Cincinnati
professor Michael Widener is heading research that looks into how
mobility can alter perceptions about neighborhoods that lack access to
by German Lopez
Paper looks into commuting patterns, mobility to identify access to food
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.