UB Students Research City’s Food Environment To Promote Healthier Eating

The Chautauqua County Health Network wants to make Jamestown a healthier place to live, work and play.

Through a project funded by the New York State Department of Health, the county health network has been looking for ways to improve the community through several initiatives.

In order to implement strategies for a healthier place to live, the health network enlisted the help of a group of graduate students from the University at Buffalo which presented extensive research on Friday at Immanuel Lutheran Church on Second Street.

The group spent 13 weeks researching Jamestown’s food environment and found room for improvement in terms of food costs, availability and economic development.

It also assessed market potential to support food retail and economic growth within the city.

The group focused on residential areas within a one-mile radius of the Eastside Family YMCA on East Second Street and found what they called a “food desert.”

“There is a lack of service on the east side,” said Samantha Neal, group member. “Additionally, 31 percent of residents we studied did not have access to any food store within a half mile.”

Jamestown scored a rating of 31.85 out of 100 in terms of nutritionally adequate food retail stores (of which there are 38) when rated on availability and affordability of nutritious food.

A combination of limited access, lack of availability of adequate food, and higher costs of healthy food result in improper nutrition. However, the group identified ways to improve the future of available health food and said if it was available and affordable, more people would buy it.

“Although the current food environment is less than perfect, economic potential for new and expanded healthy food retail is high,” said group speaker Sarah SanGiovanni. “The city is home to committed partners interested in improving food access and the time is right.”

The first solution presented was the revival of neighborhood markets within the city along with a network of local suppliers such as farmers and wholesalers to cooperatively purchase produce.

“This is New York state,” said student Nate Attard. “We are a very productive state in terms of agriculture. We’re fifth in the United States.”

Samina Raja, Ph.D. program director at University at Buffalo, said that for each dollar spent at stores, roughly 11 to 12 percent goes to the person who produced the food.

“The rest of that would be what we call the ‘marketing bill.’ It’s not possible to make money because you pay such a high markup to the wholesaler,” Raja said. “I think it’s the right time in Chautauqua County to reconnect small store owners with local producers and figure out strategies to cut the middle man out. There are not a lot of places in the country where this is possible. It’s possible here.”

The availability of vacant properties within the city is advantageous for investors, said group member Drew Rogers, because they are common and provide plenty of space to work with for outdoor farmer’s markets and community gardens.

Rogers added that community gardens are also essential to the future of a healthier Jamestown because they allow residents to grow their own produce which could in turn be sold back to community members.

“What we did try to show is that to a very large extent, the food environment plays a large role in the way people have the opportunity to eat correctly,” SanGiovanni said. “The unhealthier options tend to be more affordable at the types of places most prevalent in the city.”

Janet Forbes, project coordinator at Chautauqua County Health Network, said the group’s research data will become available in the future and that the network will continue to search for ways to make Jamestown a healthier place.

Forbes was partially responsible for creating Chautauqua County’s Food Security Taskforce, which engages partners in action steps to enhance food security for low-income families and seniors and networked with UB’s graduate students in order to complete Jamestown’s feasibility study.