Affordability and travel distance are both primary factors of food access. In order to increase access to food for Delawareans, programs should be targeted at affordability and proximity of healthy foods within the context of the local community.
Building sustainable connections between residents and local sources of healthy food forms the foundation of successful food access programs. As such the best strategies to improve food access do not assess and target food access issues in isolation, but rather assess community dynamics, build on community strengths, and empower communities. Maintaining a strong emphasis on the community context throughout the implementation of policies and programs creates an impetus for residents to redefine their sense of community to include access to healthy food. This change in residents’ expectations of their community creates the framework for sustainable access to healthy food because it demonstrates that the community is capable of providing access to healthy food and establishes access to healthy food as a long-term priority.
While the depth and breadth of local knowledge may vary by type of government, the locality, and the policies being considered, improving access to healthy food necessitates an understanding of local dynamics. For example, the key to finding a successful solution may originate in understanding how and why access to healthy food became problematic in the community. This may involve understanding the history of the community from development to population growth to business policies. To understand the best way to implement potential solutions, it is crucial to identify which organizations, such as nonprofits, community centers, and faith institutions, have strong ties to the community. Likewise, when building connections between residents and local sources of healthy food, it is important to know what sources of healthy food are locally available. The figure to the right illustrates key local sources of healthy food that should be considered when assessing the status of healthy food access and when designing policies to improve access.
Healthy Food Proximity
Fast food restaurants and convenience stores are found in greater numbers in low-income communities than grocery stores with healthy food options. Without reliable transportation, residents are limited to local food retailers.
To address health food proximity, residents need to be connected with local sources of healthy food. In addition to traditional food sources like supermarkets, efforts should focus on connecting residents with resources like farmers’ markets, healthy corner stores, and community gardens. Residents also need access to food pantries. A report by the USDA showed that 28 percent of food insecure households use food pantries. For low-income individuals, these pantries provide essential services, so it is important to make sure those who need to use food pantries can access them. Thus, it is important to ensure that food pantries are both present in communities and located along connected transportation networks.
Additionally, rural communities often do not have the population density to sustain grocery stores within walking distance of all residents. Several strategies, including improved access to transportation for rural residents and rotating food markets among several locations across town, can help address these food access issues in rural communities.
Healthy Food Affordability
Healthy food choices are more expensive than unhealthy food. Large chain supermarkets offer lower prices than convenience stores. When the price of a food, healthy or unhealthy, is decreased, more people will buy that food. If unhealthy foods are frequently being sold at much lower prices than healthy foods, studies have shown that people are more likely to buy the unhealthy foods.
Another important aspect of affordability pertains to accepting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Women,Infants, and Children (WIC) benefits. Many low-income citizens rely on SNAP and WIC benefits to purchase their food. These forms of payment require special technology to process them. While chain supermarkets almost always accept SNAP and WIC benefits, there is greater variety in acceptance of these benefits among other food sources like corner stores, farmers’ markets, and farm stands. Increasing the proportion of food retail locations that accept SNAP and WIC benefits is an important component of making healthy food more affordable.
Across Delaware, many programs are addressing both the affordability and proximity of healthy foods. A major theme in several successful programs is the emphasis on buying and producing locally. In the following sections, several of these examples, including farmers’ markets and community gardens, will be discussed. The graphic below shows the many categories of local buying options Delaware has cataloged in its Buy Local Guide to help improve awareness for opportunities to buy locally grown produce in nearby communities.