Characterizing Rural NE Michigan Food Retail: Opportunities to Improve Healthy Food Access Webinar

November 24, 2015 - Courtney Pinard, Chris Bardenhagen, <$authorEmail>

This webinar provides an overview of the Characterizing Food Retail in Rural Northeast Michigan: Opportunities for Healthy Food Webinar data collection methods, characterization of existing food retail, and recommendations of strategies to improve healthy food access for low income residents of this region.

Webinar Authors:

  • Courtney Pinard, Research Scientist for the Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition
  • Chris Bardenhagen, Cooperative Development Specialist at MSU Product Center Food-Ag-Bio
  • Rich Pirog, CRFS Senior Associate Director

Webinar Transcript:

Rich Pirog: Well, good afternoon. I'm Rich Pirog, senior associate director for the Center for Regional Food Systems at Michigan State University. I hope you're -- if you have any issues around not hearing, or difficulty in hearing, or if you have questions, you will find in your top left-hand panel of the screen, a bar that will include Q&A. And we ask you to type any questions that you might have, or comments in there, and so as we move forward. We're going to use a format here where we've got - there are three panelists, myself, our main researcher Courtney Pinard and Chris Bardenhagen, also a grad student at MSU. And we'll -- I'm going to be starting to sort of provide an overview in context. Again, as you have questions, just please type in the Q&A pod, and we'll be -- if they're very simple questions, either Chris, or Courtney or I will answer them as we move forward. And then we'll answer -- we'll have about 15 minutes at the end for Q&A for other questions that you may have.

So I want to provide -- start by just providing some context for this particular project and the partnerships that we have here. This particular piece of research was conducted through a contract between Michigan State University and the Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition, based in Omaha, Nebraska. I'll introduce Courtney in a few minutes of the Gretchen Swanson Center is an independent, non-profit research organization focused on food systems, food insecurity, childhood obesity, prevention and evaluation. We have other projects with Gretchen Swanson, including our shared measurement project for the Michigan Good Food Charter. For those of you not familiar with the Center for Regional Food Systems, we've been a center since 2012, spring of 2012. We work in a number of areas, including local and regional foods farm institution, food hubs, food innovation districts, healthy food access, healthy food financing, food system networks, and small-scale and midscale livestock and meat supply chains, as well as organic production systems. And our overall goal is to engage people both here in Michigan and nationally and internationally in regionally-integrated sustainable food systems.

So this project came about in part because of the work of the Michigan Good Food Charter. And you have six goals in the charter, including goals around healthy food access for all Michiganders. We talk about good food in Michigan. We talk about food that is affordable, healthy, green and fair for all Michiganders. The northeast of this -- of Michigan, for those of you that are on this webinar and are as not as familiar with the Michigan geography and demographics, the northeast part of the state is quite rural, it's quite forested, and we also have a number of areas that are low-income and low food access. As we looked at developing this project, it was really important for us, as we look at the Michigan big food charter, which we use a collective impact framework, and by that we mean we have a set of goals around achieving good food for all Michiganders by the year 2020. 

We, in particular, want to address some of the challenges we have in rural communities around healthy food access. And the northeast part of the state in particular, low population, low food access, and also fewer boots on the grounds, fewer people that rural community residents can turn to, work with in educational programs, and in other services than on a relative basis compared to other parts of the state. So this project in which we contracted with Gretchen Swanson was an attempt to further advance the goals of the Good Food Charter, and also address a part of the state where, as I said, we had less activity and more [inaudible] opportunities and a set of challenges. We're also very fortunate in Michigan -- you know, and I think the case here, you know, we have a lot of resources, but we need to be able to do our work in rural areas in sort of the same robust manner as we might in urban or suburban areas. Northeast Michigan is no different than other parts of the state in some ways. But because of its rural base, we see a declining customer base. We see a lot more older residents. There's lack of available small business capital. We have issues around food distribution.

And there are very few very large food super centers like we have in suburban or urban areas. And some people, you know, once a month, you know, make trips into those big cities to be able to do shopping. But their local grocery stores have some limited selections. So there's transportation challenges, there's issues around having perhaps too much shelf-stable packaged foods compared to, say, residents that live in suburban areas of the state. Next slide. As I mentioned, this part of Michigan, the northeast part -- and for those of you that are familiar, we're looking at about -- if you put your hand up as the mitten and you look at sort of where your middle knuckle was, that would be around St. Clair, Michigan.

If you went from Clair all the way up to the bridge at that strait where the Mackinac Bridge is, and from that southern point in Clair, if you went east to Tawas City, so it's about a 15-county area of northeast lower Michigan. You can see in this slide -- this comes from the American Heart Association's Food for Every Child report that they did in junction with Food Trust based in Pennsylvania, you'll see a lot of deep red in both Northeast and Northwest Michigan. Actually, parts of those deep red areas are also where the national forests are. And actually, there's more of it in part of Northwest Michigan, a big chunk of that area you see. But you also see some significant areas of Northeast Michigan.

And so this study, in part, tried to -- we're going to take a look -- we took a look at doing a typology of the existing food retail and the existing challenges, including actual supermarket and small convenient store visits in that part of the state, to get a better handle and to better characterize what Northeast Michigan already has when it comes to food retail. And we'll also talk about some of the challenges and opportunities, and also share a very unique GIS database that we've been able to put together. So that's sort of the overview and context of this webinar. Again, we ask you -- we've had one comment about minimizing echo. And so I would just ask, Chris, if you're not on mute, we're going to make sure you're on mute. I'm on mute. But if others are having an echo issue, we'll try on our part to reduce that. So what I'd like to do now is to introduce the lead investigator for this work. We did this work in conjunction with Gretchen Swanson. 

I'd like to introduce Courtney Pinard. Courtney is a research scientist at the Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition. She also holds a special deans appointment as an assistant professor in the College of Public Health with the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Again, the Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition is in Nebraska. This collaborative research is our second project with the Gretchen Swanson Center. Dr. Pinard conducts research focusing on public health outcomes and policies programs and practices that impact nutrition and diet. And a particular interest to Courtney is rural food access and how regional food systems can strengthen community food security in more remote areas that are also low income. So Courtney, I'm going to go on mute, ask you to un-mute and to move forward with the presentation. 

Courtney Pinard: Great. Hi, everyone. Thanks for being on today, and we're really excited to tell you more about what we learned from this needs assessment. So as Rich described, rural Northeast Michigan is -- there's really a lack of understanding about what the factors are that impact healthy food access. And it's a very understudied area. So that was sort of the impetus of wanting to do this research, as well as inform the Michigan Good Food Fund, which he mentioned. And so the purpose of the needs assessment was really to characterize the food retail environment in this region, and inform these programs moving forward with the ultimate goal of the Good Food Fund. So as Rich said, also this 15-county region, you can see in detail here the list of those counties, and that sort of outlined area of where we are focusing. And we'll show a few maps later on that also show where the stores are in these locations. But the green areas come from part of our secondary data, which indicate low access and low income as well. And so this needs assessment combines secondary and primary data collection.

So we looked at existing data, and did some observations in stores. And so some of the secondary sources that we pulled together were really to inform what types of stores and where their locations were in order to map them. And this came from the SNAP retail locator and retail food establishments, and a few other sources that we kind of combined. And we'll talk a little bit more about the process here. So with that, the list of stores that we had we compiled into one uniform dataset, eliminated any ones that weren't unique, duplicates. And then the challenge was really to categorize these stores based on various characteristics that were in the dataset, such as revenue and whether they had a gas station, and just the different descriptions of them. And so we wanted to make -- believe it or not, there really isn't a gold standard for how you categorize these stores, especially in rural environments. So we really wanted to have these categories meaningful for Northeast Michigan. And so you can see here the total list of the types of stores that we came up with. And at this point, I will pass it on to Chris Bardenhagen, who is a doctoral student in the Department of Humanities and Sustainability. And he also happens to be a licensed lawyer and farmer, as well as mechanic. So the multitalented Chris will now describe more about our data collection. Chris, you're on mute. 

Chris Bardenhagen: Thanks Courtney, and howdy everybody. A word on the in-store categorizations. You see there, there's the smaller midscale grocers with gas, midsized independents and food markets with gas station, and the small grocers [inaudible] without gas. One thing that I found when, you know, in the in-person visits was that the midscale grocers, whether they had gas or not, seemed to be big enough to provide more of a full offering of fruits and vegetables, whereas some of the smaller grocers were challenged for that, probably due to volume. And the small grocers, whether they had gas or not, you know, you have -- you know, looking at them on a case-by-case basis, there are two types of business focuses, ones that more focused on snacks and liquor, and the others that focus more on food and grocery. So there seems to be those two trends. 

And of course, it's sometimes hard to see one clearly because most have liquor and most have some grocery. But the food mart gas stations, their focus is generally simply on convenience foods, and liquor and pop, that kind of thing. Next slide, please. Yes. So a particular interest to me was the small midscale with gas category. This category seems to represent a trend in Northeast Michigan, where you'll see a small grocer that has a pump or two for gas. And they're generally very rural and -- but they have a focus on groceries. So one was I talked to the owner and was originally sort of a small town's grocery. And after a while, they -- after ten or 20 years, they decided to add gas, and then they started adding things like hardware and other things, maybe movies. They're very rural but, you know, they had a pretty decent selection for a small rural grocery store. They kind of call themselves "convenience plus". So a really small -- fairly small volume, but providing sort of a full -- trying to provide a full range of foods. Another actually pictured here on the right side of your screen, this one, they -- in there, they sell local eggs, local frozen meats, and some produce, and even had some focus on Michigan foods. As you can see, they are very rural, and they are actually serving as a post office out in the forested area. 

So and then on the screen on the left, bottom left, that is actually a picture of one of the midscale, midsized very small-town -- real small-town grocery, but it is big enough to have -- as you can see, there's the main cooler there and then behind it, you can barely see the other cooler that has more of the things there. So two coolers and plus, this place actually had a small meat counter where they ground meat and things like that as well that you can't see in that picture. So that would be the midscale size. Next slide, please. So the environmental scan tool, basically, when I went in I talked to the manager, or owner, or at least clerk, whoever was around, and tried to get a few questions answered by them. At first, the scan tools were taking me about 45 minutes to fill out. So I'd go through and I'd have to mark off which foods that each, you know, grocer had. After a while, I got pretty good at it. You know, it took about 20 to 25 minutes. But at first in these small towns, I got some looks from people. I'm walking around with the, you know, this pen and paper and, "Who is that guy? What is he up to," you know? So there's a little explaining to do here and there.

One thing I wanted to note is that, you know, I found that in some stores, sort of out of the blue that I wouldn't expect this, I found some nice selections of frozen meat, almost like specialty, small specialty selection of meat, fish and other things; fresh meats, local fresh or frozen meats. My experience basically confirms some of the literature that meat can be a drawer to these rural retail stores, rural grocers. But it also exposed the need. I found some owners, some grocers that were not aware that they could sell local food. They weren't -- so that shows a need to provide some information on the law out there so that people know what they can and can't do. So -- Thanks. Thank you.

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