Around this time last year Witherbee’s Grocery couldn’t afford to pay their rent, and closed up shop. It was the only grocery store within walking or biking distance of the university. Assistant professor of Earth and Resource Science Greg Rybarczyk lives in the downtown area, and believes the residents of Flint are currently living in what he calls a food desert. But he says this isn’t just a local problem. It’s a statewide issue.
In response, Rybarczyk and his students are teaming up with the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Lake Superior State University and Grand Valley State University to conduct a five-year and $4 million study on the food disparities that exist in Michigan.
“It’s just not easy to get healthy or fresh food anymore. The heart of the problem is that most people can’t or won’t get out to the store,” Rybarczyk said. “We’re living in a food desert and it’s not only Flint, but the whole state. Rural areas are having problems with this as well.”
He has hired students to help him begin the study by collecting baseline data, such as where current food outlets are and how far they are from the communities they serve. Rybarczyk and his colleagues want to know where every Kroger, every McDonalds, every farmer’s market is located before they go making any assumptions.
The study will also focus on the people of the state themselves. He is looking to survey both farmers who produce the food and the consumers who purchase it. Cultural demographics will also be taken into consideration.
“We’re going to figure out where there is a lack and where there is what we call a food oasis. Do the residents have transportation to their food? We’re going to see what happens over the next five years, try to figure out what people really want and need,” Rybarczyk said.
The research is being funded by the United States Agricultural Department, in hopes that local residents will help supply them with valid data on the issue.
Rybarczyk also plans to develop a seed bank in the downtown area. As the city sets up for some major demolition projects in the next few months, he would like to see some of those spaces converted into community gardens. Unfortunately, most of that land would have to be completely excavated for that to happen, as lead paint from the older houses never really leaves the soil.
Natalie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.