Food System Analysis approved by Shawnee County commissioners to address food access issues
G’Tobia Washington is working with the community to increase food accessibility.
Washington ran a March focus group with 11 Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients where seven respondents said they would be motivated to shop at a farmers market if they knew it accepted EBT.
“When they hear farmers' markets, they hear fresh,” she said. “When they go to the stores, they don’t really get that.”
Washington works for Heartland Health Neighborhoods through the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Pathways network.
Farmers markets are widely available in Shawnee County and can be an oasis in a food desert, which affects about 60% of Shawnee County. However, not every farmers market accepts SNAP, said Craig Barnes, division manager of the health department's Community Health Outreach and Planning program.
Some people rely on stores like Dollar General for groceries while other Topekans have their pick between multiple major grocery stores.
Shawnee County is preparing to study the food access inequality.
The Shawnee County Commission approved a contract with the Kansas Health Institute for a Food System Analysis on Monday. The $14,000 study was paid for by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s Chronic Disease Risk Reduction grant and will run from June 28 until Jan. 31, 2022.
The study will show what challenges exist in the area — such as farmers markets not accepting SNAP — and focus on improving food access.
“Having the data that shows that there is an issue, that we have done the study, that we have truly analyzed and done a comprehensive analysis of our food environment ... funders really look really highly on that,” Barnes said.
Washington said a study is beneficial because there are multiple ways to address food accessibility, and it can help identify solutions. She said steps to make food more accessible could be rethinking bag restrictions on buses so people can bring more groceries on at one time, extending public transportation’s operating hours or getting more farmers markets to accept SNAP.
Washington said some people are stuck relying on convenience stores to buy food. That food is usually processed food, which isn’t as healthy as fresh food, but it lasts longer.
Marge Ahrens, chair of the Central Topeka Grocery Oasis, sees the food inequality in Topeka and is trying to address it. Ahrens has been working to get a grocery store in central Topeka for years.
The area used to have a Dillons at 1400 S.W. Huntoon Ave., but it closed in 2016 and has left some Topekans struggling to find other food options.
Ahrens is pushing for a new grocery store because she said access to food varies by race and income level. There are food drives and other mobile options aiming to address the inequity, but Ahrens said those aren’t reliable enough to address the food desert.
There is a lot to learn about food access in the county, she said, because some people may technically live in a food desert but have reliable transportation that can take them to any grocery store in the city.
Ahrens said she is hoping to create a community store that offers fresh produce while potentially offering other amenities like meeting rooms.
“I really expect (the store) to sparkle,” she said. “The idea would be that we can create something that is something that can be copied, but the study will be able to refine where that copy(ing) needs to take place.”