Bright spots get grouped in 'food desert'

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Irony literally sprouts and blooms from a small patch of green space next to Chong's Oriental Foods at 701 Locust St. A peach tree has produced dozens of tiny fruits that are growing and ripening as the summer sizzles away.

The irony? According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Chong's and Campus Eastern Foods less than a quarter-mile to the west are smack-dab in the middle of a "food desert." The area is designated as a food desert because of the percentage of low-income residents, low availability of fresh fruits and vegetables, and the percentage of residents without a vehicle. But the area also includes most of the University of Missouri campus, the biggest banks in Boone County, two hospitals, dozens of retail shops and restaurants, the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts, Columbia City Hall, the Boone County Courthouse and the county government center — just to name a few.

How can a major research university, hospitals and a thriving retail district possibly be in a food desert? The question is not new to Michele Ver Ploeg, an economist with the USDA's Economic Research Service. Ver Ploeg co-authored the voluminous food desert report based on a congressionally mandated study she led on access to affordable and nutritious foods.

"In a lot of areas, large universities meet the definition of a food desert in that there are a lot of low-income residents there," Ver Ploeg said. Technically, she said, students are considered "low-income."

"It's a weakness of the measure," she said. "It's one of the problems of trying to define a local problem on a national level."

Even though areas might have many eateries, they often are considered food deserts if they are more than a mile from a supermarket. Limited access to affordable fresh fruits and vegetables is a key component.

The USDA's online Food Desert Locator shows three connected census tracts in central Columbia that meet the definition. The study and report led by Ver Ploeg is intended to help low-income neighborhoods and cities determine areas to target for funding assistance and locating new grocery sites. Ver Ploeg said the designation doesn't automatically drive any kind of public funding to the area.

The Kraft Foods Mobile Pantry program has partnered with the Feed America program and is using the USDA hunger map as the basis for its decision to add Columbia as one of 10 new locations for a mobile food pantry. The program is providing a beverage-style refrigerated truck to The Food Bank of Central and Northeast Missouri to provide food to people who don't have easy access to the established pantries. Healthy food provided by the mobile pantry will include fresh fruit, vegetables, protein and dairy products.

Food Bank director Peggy Kirkpatrick has said that "pockets of poverty" in the food bank's 32-county service area have more to do with receiving the mobile pantry than the local food desert designation.

Youssef El-tayash has owned Campus East Foods at 408 Locust St. for more than 25 years. The store specializes in food from India, Pakistan and Eastern Europe. El-tayash came to Columbia from Libya in 1979 to attend college.

He understands the "food desert" label. "In downtown, there's lots of students who don't have a car," he said. "They bike. For them, it's difficult" to get to a large grocery store.

Campus East Foods doesn't stock fresh produce now, but his store will be moving in two months and will stock fresh fruits and vegetables after the move.

Chong's Oriental Foods has a variety of food, fruit and produce that is shipped weekly from Chicago. Owner Chong M. Sin has been in business there for 21 years. The fruit and produce available at Chong's includes melons, cucumbers, zucchini, eggplant, apples, plantains, fresh spinach and more.

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Information from: Columbia Daily Tribune, http://www.columbiatribune.com

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.


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