News 8 Investigates: Food Deserts

Thousands live in food deserts in La Crosse, Monroe counties

As many of us are picking up groceries this week to prepare for Thanksgiving, some people in the area are having a hard time getting to the grocery store in the first place.

Thousands of people in the area live in a food desert. The United States Department of Agriculture defines food deserts as a low-income area where a significant amount of people live a mile or more from the nearest traditional supermarket in a city, or 10 miles or more from a grocery store in rural areas.

In just La Crosse and Monroe counties, there are two in the city of La Crosse, and two located around Sparta and Tomah.

In the part of La Crosse Sandra Harris lives in, there are no supermarkets in sight.

“To tell you the truth a lot of people around here tell you the same thing. They wish there was a grocery store around here that was close,” Harris said.

Like almost 20 percent of the people living in the Powell-Poage-Hamilton neighborhood, Harris doesn’t have a vehicle.

So without a grocery store within walking distance, Harris takes a bus, but she said that’s a hassle.

“Carrying the bags on my own. I have no help,” she said.

It’s been years since P-P-H was home to a grocery store.

“We see this in a lot of different retail services. The momentum is to get fewer and bigger,” La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat said. “When you get into cities, and the heart of neighborhoods, the numbers for them as far as traffic counts and stuff go don’t add up.”

Along with neighborhoods by UW-La Crosse, an area by Gundersen Health System including the P-P-H neighborhood is one of two USDA-defined food deserts in the county, encompassing almost 1,800 households.

Living just outside P-P-H,Laura Field said there’s no convenient grocery store by her home.

“Well, Festival is somewhat close, but it’s still, I wouldn’t be able to walk. I wouldn’t be able to bike there,” she said.

Because of her location, Field said she only makes a grocery shopping trip once a month, and that limits what she buys.

“I don’t want to buy a bunch of produce and have it go bad,” she said.

Beyond inconvenience, food deserts raise some real health concerns.

“Food is a basic need for us all, and if you don’t have access to affordable food, you’re either going hungry or eating bad food,” epidemiologist at Gundersen, Brenda Rooney, said.

Those in food deserts don’t have the same access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

“A lot of evidence is showing getting fruits and vegetables will reduce chronic disease, including obesity which two out of three of us as adults are experiencing,” Brenda Lutz Hanson, La Crosse County health educator, said.

Convenience stores can help fill the gap, but they often lack a variety of fresh produce, and can be tough on the pocketbook.

“They have good stuff, but they don’t have everything I need,” Field said.

“Their prices are so high, I really wouldn’t want to buy nothing in there,” Harris said.

Monroe County residents like Staar Mickelson face the same problem. She doesn’t always have access to a car, and often finds herself picking up food at a gas station just down the street from her home.

“Which is way more expensive,” she said.

In Monroe County, there are two food deserts identified by the USDA, one around Tomah, and one in the city of Sparta.

Community health educator for Monroe County, Kayleigh Day, said county health rankings show about 5 percent of Monroe County’s population is low income and lives far from a grocery store.

“Which doesn’t sound like a lot, but that’s over 2,388 county residents,” Day said.

“If you take Sparta for instance, if transportation is a problem, maybe you can’t get to the grocery store which is on the side of town, and if you’re trying to walk, trying to get back with groceries, it’s not La Crosse with a bus,” communications coordinator for the Sparta Area School District, Autumn Grooms, said. “You might have to call cab which is an added expense to get to those fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Mickelson lives in Sparta, and says her choices are limited when it comes to grocery shopping.

“If we don’t have a vehicle or if I don’t have a ride, so there’s the transportation issue,” Mickelson said.

So if she has to head to a convenience store in a pinch, that means healthy foods can’t be at the top of her shopping list.

“It’s less food so it’s pretty limited to what you can get,” she said.

Monroe County officials have identified low access to fruits and vegetables as a problem in the county, and the Sparta school district food pantry works to address that by helping families like Mickelson’s, who have a child in the district and are in need of a few extra meals a week.

“We’re getting help with having meals, and they’re more healthy,” Mickelson said.

Those in La Crosse food desert aren’t deserted, either. There are already food pantries in the city, and officials are working on a permanent fix in the Powell-Poage-Hamilton neighborhood.

“We’re looking at what options are available, whether it’s a farmers market or grocer to come into neighborhood and help,” executive director of external affairs at Gundersen, Michael Richards, said.

“It’s a collaborative effort among the neighborhood group there, Gunderson, the city,” Kabat said.

The PPH neighborhood has been the target for a variety of revitalization efforts over the past few years, and now the focus is on a grocery store.

“Having an opportunity for people to have that basic need of healthy food being met is an important part of that neighborhood effort,” Kabat said.

City and health officials said the sooner the neighborhood can get a grocery store, the better.

Rooney “We’re so much a result of where we live and where we work and that’s our environment, so if every day you live in a place where you don’t have access to affordable food, you’re not going to be healthy,” Rooney said. “So, it’s just real important we create a healthy environment for folks.”

In this food desert, it doesn’t seem to be a mirage: A future with a neighborhood grocery store is within sight.

“It would be great for me, if we had one in our neighborhood; that would be great,” Harris said. “That would be awesome.”

Kabat said the city and those he’s collaborating with are currently looking at different examples from other places in the country that have food deserts, and are working on locking down a development site in PPH.

Realistically, he said the soonest construction on a potential grocery store would start is likely 2018.

In the meantime, Kabat suggested free bus rides for people heading to the grocery store, and the La Crosse area food pantry WAFER is starting up their mobile food pantry to help those who have limited transportation.

La Crosse and Monroe counties aren’t the only areas with food deserts. Much of rural Jackson and Vernon counties have the USDA designation of food desert as well.