Food deserts are not new to much of rural America.
In Southeast Ohio, accessing quality, healthy food is just one of the challenges.
Chesterhill Produce Auction volunteer Joe Barbaree scans the floor, looking for what else is needed to bring to participants' vehicles.
Story and visuals by Nate Swanson
People carry crates of pie pumpkins and pouches with dozens of bell peppers reflecting the sun to the hatchbacks and trunks of vehicles. Inside, the weekly ritual of the harvest season attracts community members from Chesterville, Ohio, enthusiastic auction-chasers and grocers looking for cheaper prices to buy produce in bulk and then sell from their own shelves.
Then there’s Community Food Initiatives, with its donation station set up on the outskirts of the auction stage, inviting courteous attendees to leave monetary donations to support the Athens-based organization’s mission of providing equitable access to healthy and local foods. Parked behind the open stage is the hard-to-miss Veggie Van with the vibrant colors of fruits and vegetables painted on its sides, turning heads while Ivan Orquera, the Veggie Van manager, takes the sturdy wheels across Athens County to distribute fresh produce in areas that don’t have convenient access to stores selling fresh produce. These places are often known as food deserts.
“To venture into eggplant or sweet potato … encourages people to venture into these foods that aren’t consumed on a larger scale,” Orquera said.
At the pop-up produce stand in Coolville, Ohio, across from the town hall, Orquera waves to cars as they pass by. Next to the tent kiosk sits the Veggie Van that hauled in the bountiful harvest.
“There's all these farmers in the area, but it's just hard for people to access them directly,” Ravi Harley, CFI Food Access Coordinator, said. “Community Food Initiatives alleviates some of that by acting as the middleman between pantries and the farmers so that people in more remote areas have access to fresh, local produce.”
Access to the whole, healthy foods needed for a balanced diet are out of reach for many in the region who then have to turn to what is offered close by. When people live miles away from grocery stores like Walmart, Kroger or Aldi, many get their food from places like Family Dollar that don’t typically sell fresh produce, with shelves mostly stocked with packaged convenience items. Others utilize the local food pantry, which isn’t guaranteed to have the healthiest options available either.
Government and economic policy have played determining factors in access to healthy food options for people in certain regions. In 2020, there were 38.3 million people in the United States experiencing food insecurity, which is approximately 11% of the U.S. population.
In Athens County, 17.7% of families live under the poverty level, and 15.6% of its households are recipients of SNAP, Sustainable Nutrition Assistance Program, a federal nutrition program for Americans with low income. One-fifth of all residents are food insecure, and one-third of children are estimated to be facing food insecurity, according to the 2020 Athens County Health Assessment. In terms of servings, only 31% of residents report eating five or more servings of fruit a day. Of Athens County residents, 34.2% answered that these foods are too costly.
The federal government added a $40 monthly increase for one and a half million Ohioans who are SNAP recipients. But the long-awaited revision of the Thrifty Food Plan comes at a time when food prices have soared since its introduction in the 1970s.
CFI spends misty Monday and Tuesday mornings every week distributing the available produce for an optional donation or free of charge to those who need it, food pantry coordinators and others who benefit from easy access to fresh foods. One of the familiar faces at their Athens distribution site is Betsy Anderson, executive director of Serenity Grove, a women’s transitional recovery center in Athens. Anderson goes to CFI’s scheduled distribution at the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks, ACEnet, to bring back healthier food options for women living in the Athens group home.
“The delightful things that we are getting sometimes from CFI happen to be things that often cost a little more if we were to have to go to the grocery and pay full price,” Anderson said.
Anderson carries out the day-to-day agenda she helps plan for Serenity Grove, which provides women living there a secure and sober environment while integrating healthy habits to help them live independently from drugs or alcohol. Many of the women who live at Serenity Gove have come from an inpatient treatment program incarceration.
“It is not unusual for someone to come to us … with literally what they own in a kitchen garbage bag,” Anderson said. “They probably are eligible for SNAP benefits … but other than that SNAP benefit, people don’t have anything when they arrive, typically.”
People often forget that poverty is not necessarily when one cannot make ends meet, Anderson said, but it is “living below what really would let people have a comfortable life.”
Sitting at the kitchen table next to the living room in Serenity Grove is Natalie Hoffman, who works at the recovery center as a peer support specialist. Hoffman is a SNAP beneficiary who has worked at Serenity Grove since Sep. 2021. She was recommended for the job through Athens County Jobs and Family Services, after her own success with recovery.
Hoffman’s 8-year-old daughter lives with her in The Plains, Ohio, where she drops her off at school throughout the week and drives over to Serenity Grove one town over to transport some of the women where they need to go throughout the week. Hoffman wants to help the friends she has made at Serenity Grove provide structure in their lives, many of whom have come out of a rehabilitation center or off of a prison sentence.
“They're relearning how to live and that's a lot of things,” Hoffman said. “That's interacting with people and learning how to have a conversation, getting a job, eating well, going to the grocery store, knowing how to budget money, getting a bank account.”
Along with the rebuilding of structure comes mindfulness with the food that is brought home, prepared and consumed. Hoffman and Anderson encourage trips to the Athens Farmers Market, where SNAP dollars can be doubled and exchanged with tokens used there, allowing for a surplus of healthy, local food to be brought home. On days when the farmers market isn’t an option, Walmart, Kroger and Aldi are the grocery hubs. Even though she lives in The Plains, Hoffman heads to Aldi, where she prefers to get her groceries despite living down the road from Piggly Wiggly.
“Better prices, better food, better produce, cleaner store … you go (to Piggly Wiggly) and for one meal you’re going to spend about seventy bucks,” Hoffman said.
In contrast, Hoffman said she can stretch her dollar further at Aldi.
“You think about the people who don’t have transportation … because they have to go there nine times out of ten,” Hoffman said. “Once you do get a ride into (Athens) to Save-A-Lot or Aldi, you’re really budgeted at this point because you’ve spent your food stamps at Piggly Wiggly."
After picking up her daughter from school and stopping at Aldi for groceries, they made chicken fajitas together the next day. The tin foil lining the pan releases steam from around the edges while the chicken and peppers simmer in sauce that she let her daughter pick out the herbs and spices for. Hoffman knows how to budget herself while thinking of her daughter as well, but buying healthy and nourishing meals as somebody with limited income and utilizing SNAP benefits takes additional work.
“My income could go up to the point where I can’t get food stamps anymore, and one day that will happen,” Hoffman says, "I promise you that because I'm not stopping where I'm at."
Color-coded reminders are marked on a whiteboard calendar for easy accessibility inside Serenity Grove, where the orange-colored notes are written by Natalie.
Potted plants are arranged on the edge of the auction stage, where determined participants await to bid on the next bulk yet to be sold.
The auctioneer rolls out the next crates of produce for sale and buyers, on the edge of their seat, yell out their bids.
At the ACEnet building, CFI distributes good to the general public and anyone collecting items for food pantries in Athens County and beyond.
CFI helps distribute crates of locally-grown pie pumpkins to the general public.
Ivan Orquera and Ravi Harley patiently wait in the cool autumn weather in Coolville, Ohio, for interested customers and patrons to browse the selected produce and leave an optional donation in return.
The city of Athens, Ohio, sits along the Hocking River lining the Appalachian foothills as seen from Radar Hill.
Hoffman leans against the arm of the couch she lounges on while listening to Charity go about her day on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021.
A quick shopping trip at Kroger allows for Hoffman to get groceries she needs throughout the week.
Hoffman’s daughter inspects a container of strawberries, a contested fruit in which Natalie is picky about due to past purchases of the sweet berry from Walmart and Kroger being moldy and rotten within two days of purchase. "There goes five dollars in the trash!"
Hoffman loads groceries from Aldi into reusable bags after checkout.
With barren trees rolling along State Street behind Natalie Hoffman, she loads her grocery bags into the trunk of her borrowed car, finishing another day of shopping at Kroger.
"The red one," Hoffman’s daughter chooses, when asked by her mother, Natalie, which pepper she wants in addition to a green one. "Like for Christmas," Natalie responds.
Abby Hoffman, 8 helps Natalie prepare the vegetables bought at Aldi earlier that day for the chicken fajita dinner both of them will share.
The Hoffmans' home is filled with an aroma of spiced chicken and tender vegetables cooking together over the stove while their stomachs are filled with the nutritious Tex-Mex meal.
Inside the home at The Plains, Ohio, Hoffman cleans up the dinner table as the night winds down,