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Making Food Deserts Bloom


A desert is not what you’d expect to find when you move an hour north of New York City. But that’s exactly what Lisa Berrios and Albert Rodriguez discovered years after moving to the mountain-bound village of Highland Falls.

When the one dilapidated grocery finally folded, leaving behind a leaky roof and a cracked parking lot, the area instantly became a food desert, one of hundreds of places across the country without access to fresh, healthy and affordable food. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, between 25 million and 30 million Americans lack access to a grocery store, living more than a mile away in urban areas and 10 miles away in rural places. Studies show this can contribute to a poor diet and can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.

“We were without a store for more than two years,” said Berrios, whose family was used to food stands and stores within walking distance all over the city. “We had no access to healthy, fresh food. We live in a valley and to get to a store, you would have to drive 10 to 15 miles and cross a bridge or a mountain.”

If snow, calamity or a lack of transportation made the trip impossible, then the area’s 5,500 residents were out of luck.

Food access is becoming a national issue. In New York, a state program provided financing so Berrios and her husband, who comes from a family of candy store, luncheonette and grocery operators in the Bronx, could become proud new owners of the MyTown Marketplace. The $30 million Healthy Food & Healthy Communities Fund provided financing in 2011.

“It was a huge challenge,” said Berrios, of the work and costs in renovating the broken-down former grocery site. “But we live here, too. We know what it’s like to not have access. With this help, we were able to open a nice, clean, friendly and safe store.”

“Today, we are the main staple of the community,” she said. “Just during this past winter storm, every person that came by said ‘thank God you guys were here.’ Everyone in this town can walk to this store.”

Berrios said she sees the healthy habits growing in her community. Her 12,000-square-foot market has nine aisles and a double aisle dedicated solely to produce, its top-selling department. She says she is glad her 11-year-old daughter, Samantha, is able to see the fresh foods and daily access to healthy eating provided by the store.

“If you give access to people, you are giving them the opportunity to eat better,” she says. “If they can’t get to it and it’s not available, they are going to go for whatever they can.”

Today, the new store, a family business including their 21-year-old son Alex, has helped created eight full-time and 19 part-time jobs, a boon for the town’s health and economy.

Article authored by the American Heart Association, edited here for length.

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