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Study Aims to Help City Diet

Many Reading residents face challenges when it comes to finding affordable, healthy, and culturally accepted food in their neighborhoods.

That may be about to change.

Last November, the Friends of the Reading Hospital, a non-profit organization that helps the hospital through fundraising and supporting health programs, announced they would provide $250,000 to fund community health programming in Berks County.

 Since then, the Reading Health System has used some of those funds to create a new Community Health Department which is spearheading and implementing about 8 initiatives funded by the Friends, and designed to improve the health of Berks County residents.

One of the initiatives commissioned in the fall was a Reading Community Food Needs Assessment, which took an in-depth look at opportunities to improve food access in the four lowest income urban zip-codes: 19601, 19602, 19604, and 19611.

The assessment was done by the Food Trust of Philadelphia, a nationally recognized non-profit organization dedicated to getting affordable, nutritious foods and information to everyone. Its grass-roots beginnings, as an off-shoot of the Reading Terminal Market over 20 years ago, have brought healthy change to neighborhoods through work with communities, farmers, grocers, schools, and policy-makers. Their consulting services are making it possible to replicate their success nationwide.

The Trust’s findings showed 59% of Berks County residents living in poverty live in Reading.

A 2013 US census report shows that about 40% of Reading residents are living in poverty.

Many who are living in the targeted four zip-codes.

According to the assessment, the targeted areas are concentrated in the center of the metropolitan area, surrounded by higher-income sections of the city and greater Berks County. In neighborhoods where corner stores and fast food restaurants out-number grocery stores, studies showed residents tend to have less healthy eating habits and higher rates of diabetes and obesity than those who live in areas where fresh produce is easier to come by.

A World Health Organization study revealed that an intake of 2 cups or 400 grams of fruits and vegetables per day prevents chronic diseases.

A community survey, completed in the affected zip-codes by the Food Trust showed 62% surveyed reported eating fruit and vegetables less than four times a week, of which 31% reported eating them 0-1 times a week.

58% surveyed named corner stores as the main food source other than a grocery store.

Reading residents Jon and Sandra who have lived on 12th Street in one of the affected zones for 17 years, both working but sharing a car, sometimes have to walk to a nearby bodega for groceries.

Jon, 63, has high blood pressure, diabetes and suffers from gout, and admits he’s not a big fan of vegetables.

“I know my doctor says I should be eating more vegetables,” he said, “I’m trying.”

Sandra said the bodega is expensive.

“They do have some vegetables, but they cost a lot and usually go bad quickly in the refrigerator,” she said.

Sandra also mentioned that the bodega does accept food stamps.

The Food Trust report tallied 147 such stores in the four zip-codes, all of which accepted Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) cards. 69 of those stores also accepted Woman Infants and Children (WIC) cards.

It is important to note that programs such as SNAP were recently threatened by a $5 billion dollar cut in food stamp benefits nationwide by Congress last November, as part of a bigger plan to slash $8.6 billion over the next decade.

That would have worked out in Pennsylvania to be a loss of $183 million in SNAP benefits for one year – $36 less per month for families of four, and $29 for families of three.

Director of Community Health Programs at Reading Hospital Stephanie Kuppersmith said the proposed cuts would disproportionally affect Pennsylvania and would have a large impact in our area.

“The Reading Community Food Needs Assessment was commissioned to define exactly how difficult it is for residents to access fresh, affordable produce in the city of Reading. Unfortunately, some of the access and security issues we defined in assessment will only worsen if the cuts take effect,” said Kuppersmith.

But in a surprise move earlier this month, Governor Corbett forestalled an estimated $3 billion in cuts over the next 10 years, using an allotment of federal energy assistance money to prevent the SNAP cuts and help save the program for the state.

Berks County is shown to have nearly 15% of its residents receiving SNAP benefits, which is higher than state and national averages.

Although Reading has a higher concentration of SNAP and WIC certified food stores and can’t technically be labeled as a “low access” food area, the study showed the quality of the food available during a random sampling of 21 stores across the four zip-codes, was poor at best.

The study classified 19 as corner stores and two as supermarkets.

Results found each of the corner stores to have very few fresh produce options.

72% of the stores visited had less than five varieties of produce available of which 25% had no produce at all.

The quality of the produce that was found was poor, and in most cases poorly displayed in cardboard boxes on the floor.

All of the stores stocked whole and 2% milk, while only two supermarkets had low fat options.

The price for a gallon of whole milk ranged from $2.59 to $5.20 with the corner stores and bodegas being on the high side.

Full-service grocery stores prominently displayed less healthy options such as soda and frying oil.

Frequency of Reading grocery shopping was also measured, with 47% of residents only shopping once a month, 33% shopping twice a month, 14% shopped 2-3 times a week, 4% daily, and 2% less than once a month.

So, what can be done to enhance the health and well-being of residents in the affected zip-codes?

The Food Trust has come up with six multi-level initiatives as recommendations, which could seriously bring some positive change.

1) Strengthen and build on the network of corner stores and bodegas, providing for fresh food access throughout the city. A rollout of a corner store program is tentatively scheduled for late 2014, which would engage stores in a process to source healthier food at a better price, keeping them competitive with larger stores, and help market and promote the new offerings to the community. There may also be opportunities for Reading Hospital to engage in cross-programming with the stores, using blood pressure screenings, nutrition education demos and store tours.

2) Support efforts to strengthen the farmers’ market network in Reading and promotion of the Farmers Market Nutrition Program Senior and WIC Vouchers. The Penn Street Market, operated by the Berks Agricultural Resource Network, which is the only farmers market catering to the four low-income zip-codes, is open from June through October. But exploring ways to extend the season by procuring indoor space could provide access year round. Also engaging in a promotional campaign to let residents know it accepts SNAP benefits and farmers market vouchers will build infrastructure of the farmer’s market program and access to the community.

3)  Work in partnership with local government, regional transportation, and local grocery stores to develop safe, affordable, convenient transportation for shoppers who do not have access to a supermarket. This may include policy which supports transit for area residents to nearby grocery stores and encourage development of new stores along existing routes.

4)  Support and facilitate afterschool nutrition programming. There used to be afterschool feeding programs in the Reading School District, but due to funding cuts the buildings are not open after hours. There appears to be resources such as the Greater Berks Food Bank and Penn State Nutrition Links to provide programming and food after school, but there is currently no infrastructure to hold and deliver the programs.

5)  Facilitate partnerships between leading public health organizations and other institutions throughout the city. Working with key partners to develop a plan and sustainable strategy to provide fresh produce in a consistent and coordinated way that will benefit residents of these neighborhoods.

6)  Develop partnerships with full-service grocery stores to encourage healthy in-store marketing and shopping behaviors. Working with stores to promote healthier options on displays, develop nutritionist-led store tours and cooking demonstrations.

Kuppersmith said work at the Community Health Department is already underway to support farmers markets, corner stores and healthy education.

“Under our Partnership for a Healthier Berks County program sponsored by the Friends of the Reading Hospital, we are supporting Alvernia University’s efforts to build a garden at one of their properties which will sell produce at the Penn Street Farmers Market. In addition, we are currently collaborating with the Reading Housing Authority to develop a Supermarket Tours program which will provide residents with education on making healthier choices when they shop,” Kuppersmith said.

According to Kuppersmith, the Food Trust has received funds from the Centers for Disease Control to work with corner stores throughout Pennsylvania.

“The planning for the Corner Store program in Reading will begin in April and the program is tentatively scheduled to begin in late 2014.

Kuppersmith said the work was already underway before the assessment was completed; however, Reading Hospital has been invited to participate in the planning of the program.

“The Food Trust is also currently providing nutrition education in the Reading School District.”

One of the remaining seven Friends’ funded initiatives includes $30,000 for Berks County Conservancy’s Urban Garden  program. Three more gardens will be added in the city and ground is to be broken this month.

The gardens will be located at 815 Franklin Street in the Reading Housing Authority’s Eisenhower hi-rise, Reading Housing Authority’s Hubert hi-rise at 125 North 10th Street, and a lot acquired by Hope Lutheran Church at 626 North Front Street.

Gardens will include many traditional and raised beds with elevated beds for elderly and disabled residents.

Berks Conservancy’s Vice President of Development and Community Relations Tami Shimp said she found inspiration working in the gardens with volunteers last week.

“The community gardens in Reading are one of the many conservation projects that we’re proud to manage. The addition of these new gardens supported by the Friends will provide much needed healthy green space for city residents to grow their own fresh veggies, fruit, flowers, and herbs. It’s an affordable solution to address the health issues and access to healthy foods that our community faces. We’ve learned first hand that a community garden changes the aesthetics and the spirit of a community,” Shimp said.

The rest of Friends’ funded initiatives include support for the Berks County Community Coalition’s efforts to promote healthy lifestyles, educational programs such as the Farm to Preschool program at Reading Hospital’s Children’s Development Center, a guide to free and low cost physical activity, Motivational Interviewing for Smoking Cessation program, Start Nutrition Right program which focuses on breastfeeding, and the Woman’s Health Center Diabetes Management Program which provides the resources to manage diabetes through pregnancy, and make changes in lifestyles.

As we close the book on one of the most difficult winters in recent history, Reading residents may have much more to look forward to than fair weather when it comes to healthy change.

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