A new study puts hard numbers behind what local public health advocates and neighborhood organizers long have believed: For the poorest residents of Hamilton County, affordable and healthy foods are hard to come by.
"We all knew how bad it was, those of who have worked in these communities ... but now we've got these harder numbers," said John Bilderback, program director of Step One, the local health department's anti-obesity program. "Now we can take these numbers to policymakers with advice based on hard evidence that helps us explain what we're seeing."
In the five regions of the county with the highest rates of use of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, or food stamps, nearly 90 percent of the food retailers that accept food stamps are "fringe food" outlets such as gas stations and convenience stores that rarely offer healthy options such as fresh fruit and vegetables, the report from the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies found.
Countywide, the figure is 70 percent.
* Proportion of households receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, also known as food stamps, in 2007:
Nationally: 8 percent
Hamilton County: 11 percent
* In the five subregions of Hamilton County that have the highest rates of participation in the food stamp program, almost 90 percent of food retailers that accept food stamps are "fringe food" retailers who usually do not offer fresh produce or unprocessed foods.
* Three of those five subregions do not have a single supermarket.
* In Hamilton County 37 food retailers received 15 percent or more of their total sales through food stamps.
FOOD RETAILER CLASSIFICATIONS
* Supermarket: Large mainstream grocery stores that offer a full array of foods and fresh produce, such as, Bi-Lo, Food Lion and Wal-Mart.
* Small or medium grocery: Smaller, independently owned grocery stores that are focused on selling foods and fresh produce. These include Buehler's Market, Rogers Supermarket and Greenlife Grocery.
* Farm stand: Smaller produce stands that sell only farm products and fresh produce.
* Convenience store: Small stores that have little or no selection of healthy or unprocessed foods and little or no fresh produce. Focused on alcohol, beverage, tobacco and snack sales.
* Groceries, no fresh produce: Stores that may sell some healthy items but food sales are not their main priority. They sell no fresh or frozen produce. These include dollar stores, pharmacies and discount bakeries.
* Gas stations: These small convenience stores are connected to gas stations. They do not sell a variety of food that could support a healthy diet. Focused on alcohol, beverage, tobacco and snack sales.
(The last three are considered "fringe food" stores in the report.)
Source: Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies
"The sheer number of gas stations that are places that low- and moderate-income people rely upon for food - that to me was just sort of a striking number," said David Eichenthal, president and CEO of the center.
The research brief, released today, is the first in a series of reports from the Ochs Center focused on food access issues and the health and economic consequences for residents of so-called urban food deserts. These areas, typically home to low- and moderate-income residents, have few or no supermarkets that offer fresh produce and unprocessed foods.
The report compared the food purchasing habits of residents in the five regions with the highest usage of these programs - Amnicola/East Chattanooga, Downtown, Bushtown/Highland Park, Ridgedale/Oak Grove/Clifton Hills and South Chattanooga - with the rest of the county.
Some of those neighborhoods have the highest concentrations of poverty, as well as the greatest obesity rates, in the county, the report states.
With few options in their neighborhoods, many are forced to travel outside them to reach supermarkets and healthier alternatives to "fringe food" outlets, Mr. Bilderback said.
The good news is that a number of them appear to be making that effort, according to the report. The amount of food stamp redemptions at retailers in the five subregions of Hamilton County made up 17 percent of the countywide total, despite the fact that participants who live in those areas made up 45 percent of the countywide total.
A growing recognition of the environmental and economic factors contributing to obesity has been fueled by the rapid growth in obesity rates and a search for solutions, said Mildred Moreland, chairwoman of the health committee of the East Side Task Force.
In panel discussions this year residents of East Chattanooga have expressed deep concern about the lack of access to healthy foods, she said. Partnerships with the Ochs Center and the local health department hopefully will help change that, she said.
"It's our children; it's our people. The more partners we can have, the better it would be for everybody," Ms. Moreland said.
The local health department and other partners are working to bring healthy options to residents of the inner city by promoting community gardens in those neighborhoods, Mr. Bilderback said.
The report also revealed that many supermarkets receive a significant amount of their total sales from food stamp users. Those figures might help encourage large supermarkets to locate stores in inner-city areas where there appears to be high demand, said Lori Quillen, policy analyst with the Ochs Center and lead author of this report.
At the Bi-Lo on East 23rd Street, 28 percent of total sales are from food stamps. A full 91 percent of total sales for Buehler's Market on Market Street are from food stamps.
"The buying power in some of these areas is usually underestimated," Ms. Quillen said.