Grassroots efforts gain ground with fresh options for park food deserts
By Melissa Hart
Adirondack communities are tackling a grocery divide.
Drive around the park and, upon quick glance, it appears much of the health and wealth of a community can be determined by the access residents have to groceries in general and in particular fresh, healthy foods.
After grocery store closings in communities across the region, grassroots initiatives are sprouting to build a stronger local food system and improve access to fresh foods for all residents, at the same time harnessing the strengths of the blossoming local food scene.
Fresh options for Indian Lake
Communities that lack close proximity to grocery stores are commonly known as food deserts. The USDA broadly defines food deserts as “areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk and other foods that make up a complete diet.” More specifically, they’re census tracts where at least 500 people and/or at least a third of the population in rural places live more than 10 miles away from a supermarket (or more than one mile away in urban settings.)
What’s it like to live in a food desert? Just ask longtime Indian Lake resident Brenda Valentine, who makes an hour-long trek to Glens Falls roughly every two weeks to stock up on essentials for herself and her husband, Jack.
When family members come to town, they poke fun at her well-stocked provisions, stored away in two refrigerators and a stand-up freezer in the couple’s home. But it has become a way of life for the Valentines, since the community’s Tops Friendly Market closed almost a decade ago.
“You become a very good planner,” she said. While there is a Tops about 15 miles away in North Creek, Valentine uses those trips to Glens Falls to take care of other errands that also require travel, such as medical appointments or other shopping needs.
For Valentine, the loss of the community’s supermarket is more than an inconvenience. It’s an economic development, quality-of-life issue. She has been working as head of the Indian Lake Community Development Corp. to bring a new store operator into the empty spot that Tops once occupied. While potential buyers have come and gone, none of them were a grocery business, much to Valentine’s disappointment.
“I’d love for it to become a grocery store again, but time and time again we’ve been told that there isn’t the population here to support it,” she said.
Grocery stores are often considered an important part of building a stronger economic ecosystem. One way to attract grocers to remote hamlets is to build lodging options there, even if just with small inns, said James McKenna, CEO of the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism. Today’s park visitors are more “traveler” than tourist, and they require the same services that residents want, he said during a rural economic forum at this spring’s Adirondack Research Consortium symposium.
“They will provide the demand for the services residents need,” McKenna said.
In the immediate aftermath of Tops closing, Valentine and a handful of other community members looked into opening a food co-op, only to come to about the same conclusion: In their town of 1,500 people (which more than doubles in the summer), there’s a shortage of volunteers needed to launch and sustain that type of operation. Instead, she switched gears. “I asked ‘what else can we do?’ and the answer was to start a farmers market.”
Launched in 2013, the Indian Lake Farmers Market takes place from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays in July through September at the Indian Lake Central School. When sourcing vendors for the market, Valentine ran into another obstacle: a shortage of farms in Hamilton County and difficulty finding growers willing to make the trek to sell in Indian Lake. She came across Hope Valley Farm in Northville, who ended up being one of the market’s original vendors and now comes to the area three times a week: once to the market, then two other days to sell at other locations in Indian Lake and Blue Mountain Lake.
In addition to veggies, vendors sell meat, baked goods, jams, maple products and crafts. To keep vendors coming back year after year, Valentine and the other volunteers work hard to make everyone feel welcome. Volunteers help vendors set up and take down their displays. And “market ambassadors” walk around and spark conversations with visitors. “People always remark at what a friendly place this is. We go out of our way,” Valentine said.
Indian Lake is not an isolated example. Willsboro and Keeseville have seen their only grocery stores close in recent years. And in many Adirondack places—Jay, Lake Luzerne and Newcomb among them—residents have a long history of driving long distances to fill their pantries.
Access to fresh, healthy food shouldn’t be considered a luxury, but rather a public health issue, says Elizabeth Terry, Chronic Disease Outreach Coordinator with the Essex County Health Department.
“Food impacts everything. It’s well documented that eating a balanced diet reduces your risk of developing a chronic disease—diabetes, heart disease, cancer,” all top killers, Terry said. And with people of lower income—often eating poorer diets—developing chronic diseases at a higher rate, the linkage is there,” she said.
Essex County Health, working with other groups and agencies, launched the Well Fed Essex County Collaborative, which recently received a $250,000 grant through the Adirondack Health Institute. The partners include the Office for the Aging, AdkAction, Elizabethtown Community Hospital, Cornell Cooperative Extension, Essex County WIC (Women, Infants and Children), and a number of others including retailers. They are working in tandem to address issues around food access in a coordinated way.
Projects range from stocking food pantries with more locally grown veggies to getting more mom-and-pop stores approved to take public-benefits cards. At the moment, 40 percent of WIC benefits aren’t being spent, said Terry, which seems partly due to recipients facing limited shopping options. Through its Better Choices project, the Well Fed Collaborative is also working with convenience-type stores on carrying more produce and whole foods. For example, grant funds were used to purchase a produce display for the Village Meat Market in Willsboro, which they will use to feature locally grown veggies this summer.
Fresh, local food for all
Contrary to the belief that buying local is a fad only the well-to-do can afford, a recent study by Nielsen found that low-income consumers are more likely to say that buying local is extremely important to them across all product categories, compared with the general population.
Staffers at the nonprofit AdkAction worried that while the “farm-to-table” movement is blossoming across the Adirondacks and Champlain Valley, those with more modest means were getting left behind. The organization recently set out to improve local food access for all Adirondack residents, regardless of income levels.
To start, AdkAction launched a pilot project in Keeseville. Around five years ago, the grocery store there closed, leaving locals with limited options. With a poverty rate in Keeseville at twice the state average, some residents lack means to regularly travel even the 40 miles to and from Plattsburgh. “There are a lot of people buying groceries at Stewart’s or the dollar store. I felt like we needed a better option,” AdkAction Executive Director Brittany Christenson said, especially in light of the young farmer renaissance happening in the surrounding area. It didn’t seem fair to Christenson that there are plentiful apples, dairy, meat and veggies being produced right outside of Keeseville, but no outlets for people to buy them in town.
In a unique private-nonprofit partnership, AdkAction joined forces with the Keeseville Pharmacy and its owner Dan Bosley. The store used to house a Radio Shack franchise within its store footprint, so the partners had space and the willingness to try something new. A crowdfunding campaign two years ago raised $4,000 in one week for startup costs: cooler, freezer, flooring and marketing. With a soft opening in August, the “Farmacy” had a grand opening in November 2017. In addition to fresh foods, the Farmacy piggybacked on orders through the food co-op in Plattsburgh to carry shelf-stable items like rice, beans and cooking oils.
Under the initial arrangement, AdkAction managed the Farmacy orders and inventory, and Pharmacy staff did the selling and bookkeeping. After a first year of working under a consignment model, oftentimes with Christenson picking up and delivering the food herself, Bosley and his staff are transitioning into full-time management of the farm store, with the idea it will be independent of AdkAction within the next year. “We didn’t want to own or operate it, but saw our role as to support and facilitate,” Christenson said.
As part of the Well Fed Collaborative, AdkAction received $100,000 in grant funds to hire a dedicated staff person to get a second farm store up and running and create a tool kit for communities looking to replicate their efforts.
After carefully searching around the county, AdkAction will lease space from the Mountain Weavers Guild in downtown Port Henry, another place where the need was clear. Port Henry has a high percentage of Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program and WIC beneficiaries and no farmers market or other access to local food. So far, Christenson estimates SNAP transactions make up about 5-10 percent of business. To help increase purchasing power this summer, AdkAction will roll out an incentive at both farm stores that matches SNAP dollars spent on local produce.
Food from the Farm
AdkAction found that building a stronger local food system benefits all involved, the consumers and also the producers.
The 2012 Census of Agriculture identified 8,563 farms in the Adirondack North Country region: 590 of which are less than 10 acres. A whopping 74 percent of them do less than $50,000 in sales each year, according to information in a recently released Regional Economic Analysis Report produced by the Adirondack North Country Association. The report pointed to the region’s weak connections with larger markets as an obstacle standing in the way of small farm growth.
In some cases, farmers have taken the initiative to start their own endeavors, to help support each other and make it easier for customers to buy local. In Jay, Sugar House Creamery has a self-service farm store on site. For the past few years, Sugar Hill farmers Alex Eaton and Margot Brooks have run “Snowy Grocery,” a Sunday farmers market that takes place mid-October through May. Featuring area growers/producers, shoppers can pick up seasonal veggies, eggs, meat, dairy products, as well as bread and baked goods.
Working with the 14 farmers involved with the Farmacy reinforced for Christenson that the goals are twofold: Help improve local food access for all and help farmers find new outlets for their food.
“It’s hard that we’ve lost our local grocery stores, but it’s created opportunities for local farmers to fill food deserts and gaps with local foods. Growing investments with local farms, to bolster food systems from the ground up, that’s the future,” she said.