- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 13, 2015

ERIE, Pa. (AP) - Amanda Harkness’ job is to help create an oasis or two in each of Erie County’s 10 food deserts.

A food desert is a census tract area in which at least one-third of the residents live a mile or more from a supermarket or large grocery store. The distance is 10 miles in rural areas, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Three years ago, Erie County had three food deserts and now we have 10 of them,” said Harkness, a public health educator for the Erie County Department of Health.

“The problem is getting worse.”

Seven of the county’s food deserts are located within the city of Erie, where two supermarkets - Bradley’s Shur-Fine, 450 W. Eighth St., and Sander’s Market, 838 E. Sixth St. - have closed since June.

Harkness and her Health Department bosses are concerned because many residents of Erie’s food deserts don’t own a vehicle. It can be difficult for them to travel regularly to a grocery store and buy the fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean meats that make up a healthy diet.

“So they end up going more often to fast food restaurants and convenience stores that tend to sell more processed, refined foods that are high in salt, sugar and fat, and are not very nutritious,” Harkness said.

The percentage of Erie County adults who are obese has risen along with the number of food deserts, from 24 percent in 2001 to 32 percent in the most recent Pennsylvania Department of Health study that encompasses 2011 to 2013.

An ideal way to reduce the number of food deserts is to open more grocery stores in central Erie, said Melissa Lyon, director of the county Health Department.

Lyon has met with city officials about finding ways to entice business owners to open grocery stores in the food deserts.

“But those talks are very preliminary,” Lyon said.

In the meantime, Harkness is using a state Health Department grant to encourage corner stores in Erie’s food deserts to sell more fresh produce and other healthy foods.

The Health Department’s Healthy Food Here program offers display signs and other promotional materials to corner stores who sell fresh produce and other healthy foods at their store.

Most chain convenience stores are not eligible for the program, according to the grant’s provisions, Harkness said.

“I began approaching the corner stores in March, talking with their owners,” Harkness said. “They were very receptive. Nine of the 12 have signed up for the program.”

One of the nine is Serafin’s Food Market, 601 E. 24th St., which opened in 1926 and claims to be Erie’s oldest food market.

Owner Dan Serafin said it was an easy decision to join the Health Department’s program and highlight the store’s healthy foods.

“We have sold fresh fruits and vegetables at Serafin’s all along. That’s nothing new,” Serafin said. “Amanda did suggest selling brown rice and some other grains, so we’re trying that.”

Sales have been decent at Serafin’s for the fruits and vegetables, sluggish for the grains.

Part of the problem could be the cost of some of the items. Apples sell for $1 each at Serafin’s and other corner stores, nearly 50 percent more than they cost at a supermarket.

That’s because corner stores don’t buy enough of them to receive a wholesale shipment, Harkness said. Some store owners have to buy their produce from supermarkets at retail prices.

“They then have to mark up the price so they make a profit,” Harkness said. “We’ve been talking about forming a co-op among the corner stores so they can get these foods at wholesale prices.”

But some customers aren’t in the mood for fresh, healthy food, even when it’s free.

Three times during a recent weekday lunch hour, Serafin walked up to a customer and offered either a bag of cheese puffs or an apple for free. But they could only choose one.

Each time the customer picked the snack bag.

“Part of this is that we have to change the culture, and that can take a generation,” Harkness said.

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Online:

https://bit.ly/1y7WVBU

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Information from: Erie Times-News, https://www.goerie.com

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