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Heart Association: Financing, Incentives Would Fix Northeast Florida Food Deserts

Lori L. Stalteri

The American Heart Association is pursuing state-level financing programs to address the healthy food crisis in Jacksonville and its surrounding counties.

Fifty-five percent of the population living in Duval, St. Johns, Clay, Baker and Nassau counties live with either low access or no access at all to health foods. These areas are classified as food deserts.

A food desert is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a neighborhood without easy access to grocery stores. Corner convenience stores or small markets are more likely sources of grocery items for residents living in these areas. These smaller food stores don’t usually carry fresh produce, low-fat dairy products or lean meats. Instead they offer processed and prepackaged foods or sugary sodas for purchase.

Dr. Catherine Christie is the Associate Dean and Nutrition Graduate Program Director at UNF Brooks College of Health. During an appearance on WJCT's First Coast Connect, Christie said individuals in these areas are more susceptible to heart disease and other chronic illnesses because they don’t have easy access to nutritional food.

“There are plenty of nutrition programs and things in schools to help people learn what are the foods that are healthiest for them. But if they can’t get them, and they don’t have access to them, that’s really frustrating,” Christie said.

According to Christie, one of the possible solutions to eliminate food deserts is through healthy food financing. She said this would allow corner stores and small markets to upgrade their facilities and add refrigeration so they could carry fresh produce and other health foods.

Frank Cobbin is a board member for the American Heart Association and an advocate for healthy-food financing programs.

“We’re trying to work with the state to get some funding to incentivize stores to open up or to expand in those areas, provide some kinds of healthy foods that those neighborhoods so desperately need,” Cobbin said.

Cobbin says he's also trying to reach out to businesses to help smaller grocery stores move into these areas.

Both Christie and Cobbin said they believe there should be efforts from the communities themselves as well as from larger, non-profit organizations to solve the issue. Grassroots efforts such as community gardens or permaculture techniques are examples of working from the bottom up to provide more accessibility to health foods.

“We need to have some support for getting permanent solutions in these neighborhoods where access is available to everyone,” Christie said.

Until these permanent solutions arise, individuals residing in these areas will have to continue to travel outside of their neighborhoods to find healthy food choices.

Listen to the full conversation with Dr. Catherine Christie and Frank Cobbin on today’s episode of the First Coast Connect podcast on iTunes.

Photo credit: ‘Fresh Produce’ by Lori L. Stalteri is used under CC BY 2.0.