Environment Column

New York state should make access to local produce a priority in order to tackle rampant health issues

UPDATED: March 31, 2017 at 3:40 p.m.

Affording high-quality food is tough, but a little co-op in the Westcott neighborhood intends to expand on an experiment that will put its products in the hands of more people this year. This population includes people on food assistance programs who want to eat local and healthy produce, which is a choice everyone should have the right to make, regardless of their socioeconomic status.

The Syracuse Real Food Cooperative launched a food share program in 2016 to accommodate low-income customers. Due to its success, the Co-op Share will continue on a larger scale this year. Starting April 12, Syracuse residents can sign up to receive nine to 12 varieties of vegetables and fruits for a customizable period of time.

In a country plagued by obesity, increased access to real, local food like what is sold through the Co-op Share could be an ideal solution to nationwide health problems. The work done by Syracuse’s Co-op Share could be a platform for politicians on both the New York state and national levels can reference to build similar programs.

“Our program offers just a little bit more in getting to the heart of the local food market, which hopes to get as much people eating as much local food as possible,” said Reina Apraez, produce lead of the Syracuse Real Food Co-op. “What you get is seasonal, local produce that really kind of fits with what’s happening in season in New York state.”

But actually executing this is easier said than done. Without any initiatives or programs in place to subsidize retail food supplies, the Co-op Share is forced to pay the difference on its discounted share prices to those who use electronic benefit transfers or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program as payments.

Making grocery decisions boils down to cost, and unfortunately, cheaper options are usually much less nutritious. At a fast-food restaurant like McDonald’s, people can purchase a Big Mac meal for under $4, whereas a salad from Wegmans costs upward of $7. And foods with labels like “organic” or “all-natural” carry an even steeper price tag.

Although the upfront sum is high, paying for the 32-week subscription to the Co-op Share ensures $200 savings compared to regular produce shopping at the Syracuse Real Food Co-op, Apraez said. And in order to keep New York state’s obesity rates on the decline, healthy food options need to be made available to a more diverse group of people, including low-income families.

This is a goal that’s already been tackled in Cayuga County. The Healthy Food For All program, a non-profit partnership between local farmers in Cayuga and the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County, reduces the cost of Community Supported Agriculture shares in half. The partnership also coordinates educational events in which farmers provide quick tutorials on the best ways to prepare the produce people receive.

Onondaga County’s own cooperative extension should look into adapting a similar program, especially since the city of Syracuse suffers from one of the highest poverty rates in the country. As of 2016, about 46,000 Syracuse residents lived below the poverty line, according to Syracuse.com.

By seeking out assistance from New York state’s FreshConnect Farmers’ Market Program — which increases access to food in underserved communities and established a food share box program in 2015 — Onondaga County could receive funding for the startup of similar food share programs established by Cayuga County and the Syracuse Real Food Co-op.

Even without these funds, those at the Syracuse Real Food Co-op are still trying their best to accommodate low-income individuals. In addition to accepting food stamps, the Co-op also adopted a delivery service — the Co-op To Go — to specifically serve those who cannot get to the store on their own, or who travel by public transportation.

Ultimately, purchasing local produce has an impact beyond individual health. It carries a multitude of economic benefits for a community of people. Apraez said that every dollar spent at the Co-op stays largely in the local and university neighborhoods of Syracuse.

Although there is truth to healthy food’s reputation as an expensive luxury, there are options to purchase local produce, like the Co-op Share. The work done by the Co-op to bring healthy food to low-income communities should be replicated on the state and national levels to ensure that the human right to healthy food is upheld.

Morgan Bulman is a graduate student studying magazine, newspaper and online journalism. Her column appears weekly. She can be reached at mebulman@syr.edu and followed on Twitter @morgbulman.

CORRECTION: In a previous version of this post, Reina Apraez’s title was misstated. Apraez is produce lead of the Syracuse Real Food Co-op. The Daily Orange regrets this error.


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