Written by Holly Mascolo ’17
Growing up in a suburban community on Long Island, I never had to think twice about grocery shopping. I would wake up to a refrigerator full of fresh vegetables, meat, and milk. If we ever needed any more food, or to pick up something quickly, my parents would drive less than five minutes away to one of the three grocery stores within a five-minute drive from our house. I never stopped to consider a scenario different from this or to think about how fortunate I really was.
The first time I heard the phrase “food security” was my sophomore year at Colgate. Lots of communities– and in particular, low-income communities– lack access to fresh grocery items in their area. This often leaves individuals with no choice but to shop at nearby convenience stores for the quick items that they need, or to travel far distances out of their communities to shop. However, leaving the immediate area is not always a viable option for individuals, especially the elderly or those who do not have access to a car or other means of transportation. These communities where individuals lack access to fresh food and a variety of groceries are thus considered food insecure. According to the USDA (2015), food deserts are typically defined as communities that are low-income and have low-access to fresh foods, normally located one mile away from a supermarket in urban areas and ten miles in rural areas. ¹ Living in a food secure area my entire life left me fairly oblivious to this issue until I began to learn about it in my environmental studies classes at Colgate.
The issue of food insecurity can be found right in Madison County. In May of last year, the only grocery store in Morrisville closed its doors, leaving residents in the area to travel seven or more miles to the nearest grocery store in Hamilton, or further to other neighboring grocery stores. While Morrisville is not technically considered a food desert, this lack of a grocery store is seen as a problem within the community. It is especially a challenge for individuals who lack access to transportation, which means mainly the elderly, students at the nearby college, or those who struggle to travel far in the winter weather. There is a certain irony to the fact that Morrisville is nearly classified as a food desert, as there are so many farms in the local area and so many opportunities for fresh food to be purchased during the growing season in Upstate NY. However, without the retail infrastructure in place to bring food to individuals in Morrisville, it is difficult for people to access the foods that they need to lead a healthy lifestyle without leaving the community.
As a research fellow working this summer, my job was to explore potential alternative ways to bring fresh food to residents of Morrisville and Eaton, based on the preferences and needs of residents and what could realistically be sustained by the small population of individuals in this rural community. I worked with Sarah Krisch, a planner at the Madison County Planning Department and my supervisor, on the project. Together with a group of individuals who have been trying to bring a fresh food retail option to residents since the closing of the only grocery store in town, I learned about the challenges of creating a store in a small community like Morrisville and the ways in which different models could potentially address the needs and desires of residents of the community. Most of my work with the Madison County Planning Department consisted of researching alternative models, informing individuals in the area about these different options, and gauging community members’ interest in shopping at a different kind of “store,” such as at a farmers market or at a business that operates in conjunction with the local college. We sent out a survey and held a community workshop and presentation to better understand the needs of Morrisville and Eaton residents and the community’s interest in this particular project.
Unfortunately, bringing a grocery store into this area is more complicated than gathering data that shows a demonstrated need and desire for fresh produce and meat in the area. Although the over 400 surveys that we collected indicate that people are interested in shopping at a grocery store in the community, getting a chain grocery store to open up in an area with a small population, limited traffic in the area, and competition from chains like Price Chopper, Tops, and Wal-Mart is a difficult task. We found that bringing in fresh food will take a unique kind of model, and will require the involvement of multiple groups collaborating together on this project.
Thinking innovatively about other ways to bring fresh produce and groceries to the community is one reason why I really enjoyed working for the Upstate Institute. Being able to do research that focuses on improving communities in ways that are not necessarily “conventional” and interacting with community members has been a privilege that I appreciated having the opportunity to experience. I admire how the individuals in the planning department are really dedicated to the projects that they work on and are focused on bettering the community; this kind of energy and focus on local community systems is something that I hope can one day be found in every community.
I am also lucky to be one of the last students to write my blog post, as I have the opportunity to reflect upon the entire course of my experience. There were definitely times this summer when I just wanted to get up from my desk, frustrated by the somewhat slow process of research, and say “let’s just start up a farmstand.” However, I understand that this is not a quick process and that it will likely take a long time for any fresh food retail option to start up in Morrisville. I wish that I could have done more, but I now know that research is a long and continuous process, and that this will take an extended period of time to complete. At our final presentation, we proposed a few models that we think would be best for the community, based on our own research and input from the community: a farmers market created through a school partnership, a food cooperative, a distribution model that also involves adding more grocery products to an existing gas station or business in town, or a small, locally-owned business (if there is an entrepreneur willing to open one up). Hopefully one of these models—or a variation of one—will be started in the community. With continued community support of this project, I think that it is definitely possible fresh foods will be found in Morrisville again one day.