Researcher sees lack of healthy fare in LI's 'food deserts'

Food insecurity, also known as hunger and malnutrition, Food insecurity, also known as hunger and malnutrition, was the topic of a forum Tuesday at Adelphi University in Garden City. Panelists are, from left, Jackie Silverstein, of Mastic Beach; Wanda Faison, Yvonne Vivar and Laurie Greene, all of Shirley; and Sarah Eichberg, whose research fueled the discussion. (April 9, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday / Karen Wiles Stabile

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Countless Long Islanders do not have access to fresh produce and other nutritious fare because they live in areas federally designated as "food deserts," where convenience stores predominate and food banks have become vital lifelines.

In these areas, clustered largely in Suffolk County, particularly in the Mastics and Shirley, some residents are having trouble regularly putting healthy food on the table, said Adelphi University researcher Sarah Eichberg.

Tuesday, she discussed her two-year investigation, which has culminated in a 152-page report focusing on Long Island residents affected by food insecurity -- a term Eichberg and other experts say has replaced older terms such as hunger and malnutrition.

Food insecurity is largely a problem for single mothers, Eichberg said during an Adelphi University forum. Four women who rely on food banks and pantries, and spoke at the meeting, helped put a face on what dwelling in a food desert really means.

In all, she interviewed 35 Long Islanders who have resorted to food rationing to stretch what's available from one day to the next.

Long Island's food deserts, like those elsewhere in the country, were designated in surveys conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture. The USDA defines them as geographic areas where people have difficulty accessing affordable, healthy food.

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Although Eichberg focused mostly on deserts in Suffolk, Larry Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, said they exist in Nassau as well. He noted areas of food insecurity in Roosevelt and New Cassel.

"Food deserts are a vicious cycle that can start with poverty in an area and may keep supermarkets from locating there," Levy said.

As part of her research, Eichberg asked residents what policy changes they felt were needed to correct this growing and worrisome trend.

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"We compiled a list of their suggestions, which they said would make their lives easier," Eichberg said. "High on the list was reforming the food stamp program," especially increasing eligibility and raising limits on foods purchased with stamps.

Living in a Long Island food desert also means coping with exorbitant rents and mortgages, Eichberg noted, which consume anywhere from 50 percent to 100 percent of some families' total monthly income. Added to that, convenience stores tend to prevail in areas where food insecurity predominates and those outlets tend to be stocked with industrially produced snack foods, limiting choices for consumers with few dollars to to spend.

"The pricing of food is a big concern," Eichberg said, as are transportation constraints and the cost of gas.

The women, from Mastic and Shirley, spoke about personal difficulties securing nutritious food. "We are lower income," Laurie Greene of Shirley said of her family. "I have been on food stamps. I am not on them now, but I probably should be."

Wanda Faison, also of Shirley, said even though she works full time, it's not easy finding healthy foods on a limited budget. As the mother of two teenage sons, she spoke of spending exceptional amounts of time trying to find healthy foods.

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Yvonne Vivar, of North Shirley, noted that, as the divorced mother of two disabled children, she can't work and frequently relies on food pantries where the stigma is sometimes unbearable.

"My children will not stand on line at the pantries," she said, referring to their embarrassment. She said that food banks have strict jurisdictional rules and refuse the hungry who reside beyond their borders.

Jackie Silverstein, of Mastic Beach, another single mother, said during the school year she is comforted by the fact that her teenage son can eat breakfast and lunch at school, leaving only one meal for her to worry about at home.

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