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Out of reach: For residents in some of SLO County's unincorporated areas, fresh fruits and vegetables can be hard to find

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Lifelong San Luis Obispo County resident Jamie Silva may have lived in Nipomo for the past almost two years, but she finds herself in Arroyo Grande and nearby Santa Barbara County when it's time to grocery shop.

"When we moved here, I was pregnant," Silva said. "I needed fruits and vegetables, and it was slim pickings."

Silva said her past trips to the local Vons often found household staples like apples and fresh broccoli minimally stocked, if at all. She would also buy more red onions than she needed.

"Often enough, the red onions were super milky and [would] sour. I'd buy two [because] I know one of them is going to be crap," Silva said.

UNACCESSIBLE In areas like Nipomo, more than 33 percent of residents live at least a mile or more from a supermarket where they can get fresh produce and other healthy food. - COVER PHOTO FROM ADOBE STOCK
  • Cover Photo From Adobe Stock
  • UNACCESSIBLE In areas like Nipomo, more than 33 percent of residents live at least a mile or more from a supermarket where they can get fresh produce and other healthy food.

The Vons store in Nipomo is the town's only major supermarket. Put off by its selections, Silva purchases her groceries elsewhere. Aggravated by soaring gas prices, covering such distances sets her back $100 every week on fuel.

Silva isn't the only resident bothered by food access in Nipomo. At the March 15 SLO County Board of Supervisors meeting, Ken Emmer—a man who works in Nipomo—spoke about the issue during public comment.

"The situation on the east side of Nipomo, it's a disadvantaged area. There's no fresh food available there. There's a very small market there. They sell meat and cheese and canned goods. But there are no fresh fruits and vegetables available anywhere on the east side of 101," he said at the meeting. "That area is specifically rated as a food desert because it is the center of the residential area. It is over a mile from Vons supermarket on the other side of the freeway. If people don't have a car or are walking most of the time, they have to climb up the hill, cross over the freeway, go to Vons, shop, and bring their fresh produce back to their homes."

U.S. Department of Agriculture data identifies Nipomo as a low food access tract. Statistics from 2019—the latest in its Food Access Research Atlas created by the Economic Research Service—showed that at least 33 percent of Nipomo residents lived farther than a mile from the nearest supermarket in urban tracts, and farther than at least 10 miles in rural areas.

Economic Research Service Economist Alana Rhone told New Times that since 2013, the department uses the term "low income and low access" to label areas with limited access to healthy food because it's a more accurate reflection of what is statistically measured in the Food Access Research Atlas.

"Low access to supermarkets is characterized by the number and share of people at different distances from the nearest supermarket, supercenter, or large grocery store and the number of housing units in the area without access to a vehicle that are more than a half mile from one of these stores," Rhone said.

SLO Food Bank CEO Garret Olson said that Nipomo is the Food Bank's largest direct distribution location, but added that other unincorporated areas of the county are also food deserts. When he spoke to New Times on March 18, one of the nonprofit's trucks was on its way to the California Valley to provide direct hunger relief.

"There isn't an agency partner or another nonprofit out there providing hunger relief services that we can partner with. We know that the California Valley-like regions, like San Miguel, Nipomo, and other remote rural communities, struggle as food deserts," he said. "We do see that when there are food deserts, not only are people in need, but other resources for them to address that need are not there."

LAST PLACE According to 2020 data, San Luis Obispo County had low CalFresh participation rates, compared to counties of similar populations and the neighboring Santa Barbara and Monterey counties. - DATA FROM KIDSDATA.ORG AND CALIFORNIADEMOGRAPHICS.ORG, GRAPHIC BY LENI LITONJUA
  • Data From kidsdata.org and californiademographics.org, Graphic By Leni Litonjua
  • LAST PLACE According to 2020 data, San Luis Obispo County had low CalFresh participation rates, compared to counties of similar populations and the neighboring Santa Barbara and Monterey counties.

The primary lifeline that could help low income and low access residents is CalFresh—California's name for the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that was once called the Food Stamp Program. Eligible residents who are accepted receive what is essentially a debit card to purchase food with.

California Food Policy Advocates data from March 2020 showed that if every single eligible SLO County resident participated in CalFresh, the move would bring $32.5 million in additional CalFresh federal funding annually.

But SLO County ranks low when it comes to CalFresh enrollment rates—as of 2020, it was ranked 31 out of the state's 58 counties. The low ranking results in extreme strain on food banks because of over-reliance and a dried-up county economy.

"That money doesn't come to us, it stays in Washington, quite literally. Not only is that tragic for the people who aren't availing themselves of that resource by denying themselves funds for food, it's also denying our local economy that infusion of federal dollars that would otherwise go to grocery stores and farmers' markets, and other places where people get food," Olson said.

The Department of Social Services monitors CalFresh in SLO County with the help of an alliance comprising the County Public Health Department and Cal Poly, among others. Social Services Program Manager Robb Koch told New Times that until the pandemic struck, the participation rate used to be worse.

"In the end of 2019, we were striving to hit an 85 percent participation rate. At that time, based on this data that came from CDSS [the California Department of Social Services], we had a 47 percent participation rate. According to the state, at the time, we had 16,000 households that were not enrolled that were likely eligible," Koch said.

A 2014 analysis by California Food Policy Advocates found SLO County to be 51 out of all 58 California counties in terms of CalFresh participation. Since late 2019, Koch said Social Services has been making slow headway into improving participation and awareness.

In November 2021, 11,720 CalFresh households were active in SLO County. Almost 19,000 individuals formed those households. Koch said he isn't certain why low participation exists in the county. The Food Bank is trying to figure out the answer: Olson said it applied for a Social Services-administered CalFresh Outreach grant worth $150,164 to research gaps in enrollment.

But even with CalFresh participation, debit cards hold little value when other inequities persist, such as low access to a local supermarket. Both Koch and Olson urged for better public transportation in SLO County, with the latter attributing access to transportation and support as major contributors to whether someone could actually get food.

"Do they have friends, family, a church that's able to bridge their food needs? If they do, then their reality in what would otherwise be a food desert makes it not [one] to them," Olson said. "What's their transportation reality? Do they have reliable access to transportation? What's their social reality? Are they able to get to a grocery store, or do they have significant personal, medical, disability, or child care issues that make it so that getting to a place to get food is not a reality?" Δ

Reach Staff Writer Bulbul Rajagopal at brajagopal@newtimesslo.com.

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