- Associated Press - Monday, December 7, 2015

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - None of the three supermarkets opened by the largest food retailers over the last few years in Rhode Island are located in high-poverty areas in Woonsocket and elsewhere known as “food deserts” because they lack easy access to healthy, affordable food, according to an analysis by The Associated Press.

But where large chains are falling down, community groups and the state have stepped in to do more to help residents find other ways to get access to fresh fruits, vegetables and meat.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture considers a neighborhood a food desert if at least a fifth of its residents live in poverty and a third live more than a mile from a supermarket in urban areas, or more than 10 miles in rural areas, where residents are more likely to have cars.

The biggest food desert in Rhode Island is a large swath of Woonsocket. Others are scattered throughout the state in Providence, Warwick, Johnston, Cranston, North Providence, Pawtucket, Bristol, Tiverton, Warren, Narragansett, Westerly and South Kingstown.

The nonprofit group Farm Fresh Rhode Island manages a network of 10 farmers’ markets that operate around the state. One of its most popular programs is “Bonus Bucks,” which gives a 40 percent bonus to people who use food stamps at the market, said Jesse Rye, the group’s co-executive director. For example, if someone buys $10 worth of produce at the market, they will receive $4 more to spend there.

The group expanded the program to 16 unaffiliated markets this year, Rye said.

The state Department of Environmental Management has been focusing on building a sustainable, locally based food economy to tackle such issues, according to Ken Ayars, chief of the DEM’s Division of Agriculture. One project it supports, a planned co-op grocery, announced on Thursday it would open in a down-at-the-heels area of Providence.

A recent state law also makes things easier for residents to take matters into their own hands by gardening. It’s now a right for citizens to grow their own food, Ayars said.

“If someone wants to take their front yard and grow tomatoes instead of grass, they have that right,” he said.

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