By Tyler Rothbauer
To many who live here, Youngstown’s classification as a ‘food desert’ is not a new revelation. A common issue for impoverished areas, a food desert is defined by the American Nutrition Association as “[a part] of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods … due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers.”
A 2010 federal study produced by the Food Research Action Center listed greater Youngstown as the nation’s fifth-worst area for people suffering food hardships due to a debilitated economy. This economic downturn has forced grocery stores in and around the Youngstown area to move to more flourishing locations, creating a severe lack of access to fresh groceries for residents.
According to a 2015 study by local TV news affiliate WKBN, approximately 20 percent of the Youngstown population do not own a vehicle, imposing an even greater challenge on those looking for fresh foods, as the nearest grocery store is miles away for most residents.
Since that study, nothing was done to address the dilemma directly. Now, newly elected Youngstown Mayor Jamael Tito Brown wants to tackle the the problem head on.
On February 6, Brown visited Youngstown State University to address resident topics of concern during a town hall event, leaving the floor open to attendees after his remarks. His final comment of the evening was in regard to the food desert in Youngstown.
Pushes for initiatives to improve Youngstown’s ‘food desert’ status have existed for a while. Back in October 2017, a Youngstown faith-based organization known as ACTION called on the mayor-to-be to initiate real change in the community and bring in fully operational grocery stores. ACTION leader, Minister Ted Brown, blames “structural racism” for creating the sparsity.
This crisis exists at Youngstown State University as well, affecting students living on campus and in off-campus university-affiliated housing. Repetitious and not particularly nutritious meals are what most students are accustomed to when eating on campus due to the lack of an on- or near-campus fresh food market. Prior to the 2017-18 academic year, YSU students were able to use “Pete’s Points” (a form of e-currency for students obtained by purchasing a meal plan) at the local CVS Pharmacy. This allowed students to purchase supplies and necessities off-campus, similar to students at countless other schools across the country. However, CVS was removed from the list of “Pete’s Points” vendors by the university at the start of the 2017-18 school year, which did not please YSU students. YSU junior business major Evan Landgraff believes the university should have done something to fix the situation.
“If they’re going to take CVS off of Pete’s then they should’ve found somewhere else for us to use the money we pay for,” Landgraff said.
“We have no access to fresh foods or products anymore, without having to now drive to Walmart in Liberty and spend money.”
Other larger colleges in the state, including Kent State and Ohio University, have on- or near-campus markets filled with fresh fruit, vegetables and other supermarket goods, which students can purchase with meal plan funds.
The closest option to a fresh food market at Youngstown State is the food pantry, open 10 hours a week for students to access freely. Students scan their YSU ID and then it’s ‘open season’ on the produce for them.
Listen below for Mayor Brown’s comments on the ‘Food Desert’:
While the food pantry assists students facing food insecurity by giving them access to no-cost nutritious meals, it only has so much potential.
Which is why Ernie Barkett, vice president of YSU Student Government, along with the rest of the organization, is aiming to bring a grocery store to campus which will create revenue of its own, and pour that revenue back into the YSU community.
Barkett explained that the on-campus grocery store would provide students and the local community with more than just fresh food options.
“Something that residential students and people around here would be able to work for,” Barkett said.
The plan is to have the store fully operational by the fall of 2018, as fundraising is not complete yet.
“We have a student strategic investment fund here at the university … where we had $1 million carry over from last year, so the administration decided to allow any department to apply for funds,” Barkett said, further explaining that each application is evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
Barkett, along with other members of SGA, see bringing a grocery store to campus as a means to improve the university, as well as the surrounding Youngstown community.