For many neighborhoods, accessing fresh food remains a challenge

The struggle to find fresh and healthy food is very real for many in Madison, despite many big box grocery stores and 16 seasonal farmers' markets.

The closing of Walgreens on Verona Road at the end of 2014 has exposed the instability of South Madison's Allied Dunn's Marsh neighborhood. Though the neighborhood is biking distance from the Capitol, the amount of resources present in its immediate area are severely lacking.

The Verona Road Walgreens has been the main source of food for many within the Allied Dunn's Marsh neighborhood. The city of Madison describes the majority of the area as residential and open park space, with the most recent development accomplishments of the area occurring before 2010. This includes the completion of a $14.7 million housing development on a vacated grocery store lot in 2009. The closest grocery stores are more than one mile away.

Food deserts, as defined by the USDA, are areas with limited or no access to healthy and affordable foods. Whether a grocery store is not within walking distance or individuals can't find reliable transportation, the issue leads to families eating meals from fast-food restaurants and convenience stores, like the Walgreens of Allied Dunn's Marsh.

The USDA’s “Food Access Research Atlas” shows that South Madison has four designated food deserts along the Beltline highway, with a gap before a fifth area is designated on the west side of town as the Beltline curves north. These areas include the Indian Springs, Allied Dunn's Marsh, Moorland Rimrock, Arbor Hills, Highland Manor, Burr Oaks, Capitol View, and Bram's Addition neighborhoods of South Madison.

Each of these neighborhoods are within areas that classify as low income and low access. This means that a high number of households do not have vehicles and are not considered as part of group quarters, like those living close to the campus area. Other factors that contribute to a community's status as a food desert include the neighborhood's income and unemployment, amongst others.

Dane County Housing and Economic Development Planner and South Madison Food Enterprise Project Manager, Olivia Parry, said the emergence of food deserts represents a long-term trend.

“Grocery stores have been moving out of lower income areas for decades. It's a market based reason why they're doing it,” Parry said.

Parry said neighborhood groceries have been going out of business due to larger food retailers. This creates an aggregation of big box stores in areas with heavy transportation, resulting in food deserts that cause community problems in health, social equity, and economic development.

“Solving food desert issues typically require some sort of a subsidy from the community,” said Parry.

This is not just a South Madison issue The north side has its own food access gaps, like those in North Lake Mendota, Lerdahl Park areas.

Several Madison community organizations and officials have been taking action to address the fresh food scarcity and find a solution. Growing Power, a non-profit organization based out of Milwaukee with a presence in Madison, provides citizens with access to healthy and affordable food as well as training and classes that teach communities how to provide nutritional food for themselves.

CEO and founder Will Allen has been involved in the Madison community for years, working with Robert Pierce's South Madison farmers' markets and Badger Rock Middle School, one of the only schools with an education system that has a strong agricultural basis in the country.

“We've been doing hands on training, teaching people how to make coop houses, how to make composts....One of the ways of getting people to at least have help with getting food is to teach them how to grow it. That's part of what we work on as an organization,” Allen said.

Allen sees the closing of the Verona Road Walgreens as another unfortunate event that contributes to South Madison's food struggle. Not only does it increase the challenge for some to find fresh food, but it is removing an element of the neighborhood that supplies many individuals with a steady source of income so they can bring food into their own households.

Parry said efforts by the South Madison Food Enterprise (SMFE) to create strong relationships between community agriculture partners and address the lack of healthy food in underserved neighborhoods is expanding. SMFE often works through the planning process with its efforts focused on South Madison.  The SMFE designated a project area that includes the Indian Springs and Southdale neighborhoods of South Madison. The report outlines the results of a study on the area, as well as details such as the project area's demographics and the anticipated method of developing a successful food enterprise.

“There needs to be a dedicated staff person, individual or community leader to move the process forward that actually has the skill set to...raise money and create the partnerships that we order for something like [our project] to come together,” Parry said.

Madison's Food Policy Council requested a $100,000 grant that will fund training for retailers, improvements to current stores, and pre-development planning for a potential store, as detailed by their Funding Proposal.

This comes at an important time for the residents of the Allied Dunn's Marsh neighborhood, where city-wide involvement is necessary to ensure the development of a food enterprise. Allen feels that political involvement is a necessary step, but some community initiative to address the problem is at the heart of the issue.

“Everybody needs to get involved. When you have one area that you see is under stress it affects us all,” Allen said. “A community that's so close to the capitol of Madison being under stress...I think that's something I'd like to see more effort put into.”