Everyone deserves access to fresh, healthy foods in their own neighbourhoods, yet many have never had this.
Two local Food Access Coordinators are working tirelessly to make this a reality: Sophia Buggs for Mahoning County and Christian Bennett-Mosley for Trumbull County. For the last two years, the pair has been connecting store owners with local food distributors through the Community Foundation of the Mahoning Valley’s Healthy Community Partnership.
This is not an easy fix. Corner store owners are struggling to stay afloat, now more than ever because of the pandemic. Their resources are already stretched to the limit. Asking them to start offering perishable goods places extra demands on already overworked business owners. They have to invest extra time and effort, devote shelf space, secure expensive refrigeration, have the right infrastructure in place, meet health code requirements and train their workers, adding even more to their already heavy daily workloads.
And yet, many say yes, out of a sense of duty to the community and wanting to be part of the change. Several neighborhood stores now offer fruits, vegetables, cereals, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, fresh meats, and even healthy prepared snacks and meals. It’s thanks in part to Good Food Here, a statewide initiative led by the Creating Healthy Communities program at the Ohio Department of Health, and to the diligence and dedication of Buggs and Bennett-Mosley.
Making healthy foods affordable and accessible at community stores benefits everyone, giving residents more choice and greater control over their health. It also supports local growers and the businesses themselves.
“As most know, many areas do not have a grocery store close by that is offering fresh foods or healthier options,” says Buggs. “Instead of us shaking our finger at our corner store owners, this is a way for us to embrace the entire community. They can lead the charge as it relates to food access.”
The Food Access Coordinators work with stores to help them get order and sell fresh food that is affordable for their customers. Typically, produce has to be ordered in bulk, and when it doesn’t sell it can be seen as a waste of resources. The Community Store Initiative’s goal is to secure fresh foods and produce from local farmers and distributors instead. Buggs works with Perfectly Imperfect, a food vendor that allows store owners to access fresh, local food at an affordable price.
“Many of these stores are just barely surviving themselves,” she says, “so my goal is to help them work through some of those challenges with my team.” Her team includes Carmella M. Williams’ Intentional Development Group, who provides small business coaching and helps store owners access any other funding they might need.
Buggs is also working to bring awareness to greenspace, farming and gardening. One of her focuses is to look for historically excluded farmers, specifically Black farmers, to give them the resources they need so they can expand their businesses.
A local urban farmer herself, Buggs is dedicated to supporting and lifting up local growers who are challenged with accessing land, water and the tools they need to succeed. She has been doing this for more than a decade, often working with OSU Extension. She and many others are doing everything they can to try to alleviate the impacts of poverty in Youngstown. “The farms should be invested in people,” she says, “because that is the only way this is going to get done.”
Well known and part of numerous circles, Buggs has been a fixture at every food event and farmers market, teaches cooking classes, and sits in on countless meetings and councils.
“Youngstown is deemed one of the top cities for poverty and food access is at the top of the list. And yet for whatever reason it’s not a big issue,” she says. “We are imagining our food banks are going to save us. But food banks and food pantries are supposed to be for an emergency, not your everyday foods.”
Hunger is just not popular when it comes to politics, Buggs says. “Many of us in the valley are sick, even if we look okay,” she says. The reason she’s passionate is because she is serving herself, in a sense. She lives in those neighbourhoods and is part of the same demographic that needs to work every day. “I am the local small Black business, the local community leader. I am also the one who is disadvantaged. I can’t be hungry and I can’t let my neighbours be hungry.”
We have a broken food system, says Buggs, and fixing it is such a big undertaking that it’s easier to just continue doing what we know. But what we can’t do is blame store owners for not having the right kinds of foods. They’re the ones who are still brave enough to feed us, she says, even during the pandemic; we have to include them and work together. Several shops are run by immigrant populations who have been helping the community here for years.
“Many of these businesses are just barely holding on with a wing and a prayer,” says Buggs, “and yet these store owners are brave enough to say I care about this neighborhood and with whatever resources I have I’m willing to help.”
People are clearly wanting to be healthier, Buggs says, citing businesses such as Cosmic Kitchen, Evolve Market and Common Goods Studio in Youngstown as examples.
“We know it’s possible—I want it and I live in this neighborhood. I eat seaweed, drink kombucha, make kimchi; these aren’t things I can find here. I have to go outside my neighborhood, often outside my city, to purchase high-quality hyper-local foods.”
Being a Food Access Coordinator is an intense, all-encompassing job; it requires a strong business sense, the ability to listen, and strong social skills.
That feeling of responsibility is shared by business owners. “Store owners have said yes to offering healthy foods, which is not always the easiest,” says Bennett-Mosley, who works for Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership. “It’s not enough money to sustain your business, so a lot of the store owners are really sacrificing their shelving to do this.”
She is also able to help stores within Trumbull County receive equipment through a Finance Fund Grant of $25,000 that was awarded in December 2020. It makes additional infrastructure or equipment possible.
Covid has only created more layers of barriers for store owners. The best Bennett-Mosley was able to do during the pandemic was to offer small business loans and resources to help owners stay afloat. Many stores suffered damage and break-ins; unfortunately, many closed. Some were able to rebuild.
In the city of Warren, the whole southern portion has no grocery stores at all. Residents have to travel at least five miles in order to get healthy foods. Bennett-Mosley did a store assessment in 2019 and found that while there are about 5 grocery stores, there are 44 corner stores.
“That’s the reality not just in Warren, Ohio but across the country—there’s always going to be that surplus of corner stores compared to grocery stores,” she explains. “There used to be a bad perception of corner stores, but these aren’t just random entities. These store owners have families, they are residents, they have a say in what can be implemented in the neighborhood.”
Success requires several elements: store owners to say yes to having healthy foods, residents to buy the food, local city council to highlight participating businesses, and financial resources to allow store owners to gain some income from the endeavour.
“Food access is such a systemic issue. It takes a lot for something like this to really take off. It’s going to take some time for our communities to be healthier,” she says.
Store owners can help in the battle against food deserts (areas where residents have limited access to affordable and nutritious food) and food apartheid (a term that describes how the lack of availability of healthy food disproportionately affects communities of color), says Bennett-Mosley. “They understand how their store can really be a vessel of change in the neighborhood. If there’s not a grocery store around, then a corner store offering healthy foods needs to be the reality right now.”
Bennett-Mosley has a bachelor’s degree in geography from Youngstown State University. She learned that where you live determines the kinds of resources you’re going to have in your life: education, food access, mental health resources. “Where you grow up, your neighborhood or zip code, definitely affects you,” she says.
Launched in 2018, the Healthy Community Partnership of the Mahoning Valley has brought together organizations and individuals who share a commitment to a healthier, more equitable Mahoning Valley and improving health, wellbeing and health equity for residents in Mahoning and Trumbull Counties. There are three focus areas through which HCP-MV is developing strategies to achieve long-term, sustainable change: Healthy Food Retail, Active Transportation, and Parks and Green Spaces. The generosity of the following funding partners support the efforts of the Partnership: Community Foundation of the Mahoning Valley, Western Reserve Health Foundation, the Trumbull Memorial Health Foundation, the William Swanston Charitable Fund, and the Mercy Health Foundation Mahoning Valley. For more information visit hcpmahoningvalley.com.