Mapping Food Insecurity, Hunger in Ohio

Mapping Food Insecurity, Hunger in Ohio
CFAES Mapps Project Seeks to Improve Food Access for Several Ohio Communities
The fresh produce isle of a grocery store

Sidewalks, crosswalks and bus stops are a determining factor for some families in the Meadow Ridge neighborhood of West Chester, Ohio, as to whether they have access to fresh foods.

“My daughter eats a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables all the time, but when my car broke down they had to eat more processed foods like ramen noodles and spaghettios,” said a resident of the Southwest Ohio suburban township. “I had a friend who would take me to the store but she could only take me once every two weeks, so you know, the fresh items, they don’t keep very long.

“It was really upsetting to me as a mother that I couldn’t feed my kids the way that I wanted to.” 

These are just some of the barriers that some residents have identified as limiting their access to healthy foods and general wellbeing.  Ohio State University Extension professionals and faculty researchers are working with community members in several Ohio neighborhoods to understand and address issues related to food access, healthy eating and physical activity.

“Some communities aren’t aware that food access or food insecurity is an issue. Heal Mapps brings awareness to the issue from the participant’s perspective to get the conversation started to solve the issues.”Karima Samadi, project coordinator for HEAL MAPPS.

OSU Extension is the outreach arm of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University.

Through the Healthy Eating Active Living: Mapping Attributes using Participatory Photographic Surveys (HEAL MAPPS) program, community members partner with OSU Extension professionals, faculty researchers, and students to create an action plan based on information gleaned from conversations with community members.

The issue is significant.

From 2013-15, some 764,000 households in Ohio reported being food insecure, while another 313,000 households reported very low food security, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2016 report, Household Food Security in the United States in 2015.

The USDA defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.  Very low food security is defined at times during the year, the food intake of household members is reduced and their normal eating patterns are disrupted because the household lacks money and other resources for food, according to USDA.

Children aren’t immune to the issue.

As many as 1 in 4 Ohio children are unsure of where their next meal is coming from, according to the Children’s Hunger Alliance, with some 630,000 children statewide living in food-insecure households, the organization said.

The Heal Mapps project, which originated at Oregon State University, has been implemented in select neighborhoods in Ironton, West Chester and Xenia, Ohio, so far, said Dan Remley, Field Specialist in Food, Nutrition and Wellness for OSU Extension, who leads the project.

The goal, Remley said, is to offer this kind of research and engagement across Ohio to help change policies, systems and environments.

“Residents in those areas who’ve agreed to work on the project used GPS mapping and took photos and videos of features throughout their communities that support or inhibit them from participating in healthy behaviors,” he said.

“Participants took pictures along their daily routes of things like sidewalks that are run down, how far grocery stores are located to their homes, how many fast food restaurants are near their homes, to whether stairwell access or barking dogs impeded their easy access to fresh foods. Their pictures tell the stories about what it’s like to live in their communities.”

The information gathered is used to create a community action plan to develop a community-led task force to implement the participant’s recommendations to addresses what supports or inhibits healthy eating and community wellbeing.

In West Chester, the project and resulting community action plan has resulted in talks to implement some of the project’s recommendations, including increasing bus stops and building more sidewalks in affected areas, said Karima Samadi, project coordinator for HEAL MAPPS.

“Some communities aren’t aware that food access or food insecurity is an issue,” Samadi said. “Heal Mapps brings awareness to the issue from the participant’s perspective to get the conversation started to solve the issues.”

For one woman in West Chester, the lack of sidewalk and retailers that sell fresh foods that were in safe walking distance from her home, was a barrier for her family.

“We really need sidewalks –it’s really not safe,” she said. “We don’t have crosswalks.  We really need a grocer closer. I know a lot of people whose car breaks down and they can’t afford to fix it, can’t afford a taxi to get to the store.

“They just have to wait until they can afford to fix it or get someone to help them.”

The Heal Mapps project is funded by CFAES OSU Extension grants, with a goal to try to get the project into more Ohio neighborhoods, Remley said.

The project typically lasts six to eight weeks, Samadi said.

“We hope to bring awareness and increase access to healthy food and create a more sustainable food system and boost local economy,” she said. “This allows the voice of the people in the community to be heard.

“Some communities aren’t aware that food access or food insecurity is an issue. This helps bring awareness of the issue to get the conversation started to create ways to solve the issue and influence policy systems and environment change.”