Grocery store aisle with shelves full of processed foods

When Healthy Food is Out of Reach: A Food Access Survey in Northwest Lower Michigan


June 28, 2019 - Kathryn Colasanti, Connor Drexler, Meghan McDermott, Christina Barkel, Larry Dyer, Courtney A. Parks


This report presents the results of a spring 2018 survey of food pantry users in Benzie and Antrim counties. The Food and Farming Network and The Local Food Alliance conducted the survey as part of their commitment to understanding the food system of Michigan’s northwest Lower Peninsula. This survey was an opportunity to understand the experiences of pantry users in order to call attention to food access needs in these communities and inform network strategies. By focusing on the perspectives of people currently struggling to meet basic needs, survey findings can help identify ways the food system can better serve all community residents.

Read survey highlights below, or download the file to read the full report!

Indications of Access

Across all survey respondents, the majority reported eating well below the recommended levels of fruits and vegetables — 76% indicated eating 2 cups or less of fruit each day and 66% indicated eating 2 cups or less of vegetables each day. This is consistent with findings for Michigan residents more broadly. In 2015, only 14.4% of Michigan adults reported consuming fruits and vegetables five or more times per day.

Even within this context of low average consumption levels of fruits and vegetables, it appears that poverty status may be related to consumption levels. Among those who reported eating 2 cups or less of vegetables each day, 71% were at or below 100% of the federal poverty line, compared with 29% who were above 100% of the poverty line.

When people surveyed were asked about barriers to eating fruits and vegetables directly, cost emerged as the most significant self-reported challenge. Importantly, among those who reported consuming 2 cups or less of fruit a day (n = 247), a substantially greater proportion reported who they perceived cost as a barrier in eating enough fruits and vegetables (61% vs. 39%). The same relationship was seen with vegetable consumption — among those who reported consuming 2 cups or less of vegetables a day (n = 227), a larger portion reported that cost was a barrier (62% vs. 38%).

Approximately 20% of people indicated two or more barriers to eating fruits and vegetables. However, nearly one quarter of people taking the survey indicated they did not experience barriers to eating fruits and vegetables. A larger proportion of those who reported experiencing no barriers to eating enough fruits and vegetables reported consuming 2-3 cups of fruit a day or more compared to those that reported experiencing one or more barriers (36% vs. 20%, n = 77).

"Fruits and vegetables are not taken care of in store. They look rotten." Antrim County resident
"I make sure there is enough for my kids to have and I go without." Antrim County resident

The availability of high quality fruits and vegetables also appears to be a challenge for some people. More than one fourth of people responding (27%; n = 73) indicated that it was not easy to find high quality fresh fruits and vegetables where they live.10 A similar number of people (26%; n = 75) reported that they do not have easy access to stores that meet their needs. Of those reporting inadequate access to stores that meet their needs, about half (56%, n = 41) reported traveling 20 minutes or more for grocery shopping, including about a third (32%, n = 23) who reported traveling 30 minutes or more. Likewise, of those indicating it was not easy to find high quality fresh fruits and vegetables, 49% (n = 35) reported traveling at least 20 minutes, including 18% (n = 13) who reported traveling at least 30 minutes for grocery shopping.


The survey findings clearly show that many food pantry users in Antrim and Benzie counties face multiple struggles to meet basic needs. The compounding effects of unemployment and under-employment, high rates of food insecurity, and health challenges were prevalent. Respondents reported that choosing between food and other expenses occurs frequently. Almost everyone was at or below 150% of the poverty line. In this context, it will be crucial for food access initiatives to address these multiple and intersecting needs comprehensively.

Prices are the primary driving motivation for choosing where to buy food. Dollar stores are a common choice for grocery shopping (about half of people said they frequent dollar stores), even surpassing supermarkets as the most visited store type. Meals at fast food restaurants, convenience stores, and pizza restaurants are at least a weekly choice for about half of people responding.

While the availability of stores and the quality of store offerings is not an issue for the majority of people represented here, a substantial minority are dissatisfied with the quality of produce at nearby stores and unhappy with their ability to access stores that meet their needs. The distance to stores and access to transportation are important factors in this equation. Approximately 16% of people reported traveling over 30 minutes to buy food and almost half relied on rides from family or friends in order to reach groceries. People reporting inadequate access to food that meets their needs were more likely to be traveling at least 30 minutes to reach a grocery store.

However, the bigger barrier for more people appears to be the cost of food. For many of the people represented in these findings, food prices appear to impact the ability to choose the foods they would like. More than half of people find that fruits and vegetables are too expensive, which likely limits how much produce they eat.

Interest in Michigan-grown foods is high in this sample: substantial majorities indicated wanting to know whether their food is from Michigan and appreciating having local foods available at pantries. However, the perception that farmers markets are too expensive was also common. The lack of year-round availability of farmers markets was also reported as a barrier for the majority of people in this survey. On the other hand, few people reported not knowing how to prepare the fruits and vegetables sold at farmers markets or offered at pantries.

Pantries are helping bridge gaps in food needs for many of the people represented in this survey. However, approximately one fifth of people indicated that pantries’ locations, days, and times are inconvenient. This is likely to be an underestimate given that the survey was only conducted with people who were present at a pantry.

Key Recommendations

The findings presented here point to at least six recommendations of strategies to increase access to healthy food and better understanding of current limiting factors.

  1. Conduct focus groups or interviews to better understand why the limited seasonality of farmers markets is a barrier. Well over half of people in this survey agreed that the lack of year-round availability is a barrier to shopping at farmers markets. It is not clear from the data, however, why this is seen as a barrier. Is it hard to remember when farmers markets are or are not open? Is it hard not knowing what products will be available at different times of the year? Would tips on eating seasonally be helpful? Focus groups or interviews on this topic could provide further insights.
  2. Consider increasing pantry days and hours. The number of people reporting pantry days, times, and locations as inconvenient indicates that a review of pantry accessibility in the area would be helpful. If feasible, consider extending operating hours and/or offering satellite locations.
  3. Increase healthy food choices at dollar stores. Approximately half of people in this sample reported regularly shopping at dollar stores. Dollar store executives target rural areas and people with low incomes; and dollar stores often contribute to the closure of supermarkets in the area by undercutting prices. Typically, dollar stores carry little to no fresh produce and only a limited amount of processed food, packaged in order to hit a low price point. There are several dollar stores in both Benzie and Antrim counties and there could be opportunities to encourage dollar store owners to stock healthy food choices.
  4. Offer benefit programs at farmers markets. Many people reported that food at farmers markets is too expensive. Offering and promoting benefit programs at farmers market could reduce this barrier and expand access to fresh produce. Currently there are markets in both Benzie and Antrim counties that accept SNAP, Double Up Food Bucks, Project Fresh, and WIC.
  5. Offer and promote Double Up Food Bucks at grocery stores. Many people in this survey indicated interest in Michigan-grown foods. The Double Up Food Bucks program could help make Michigan-grown items more affordable.
  6. Explore local transportation options. Large numbers of people in this survey are relying on rides from friends or family members to reach grocery stores. And substantial numbers of people are traveling more than 30 minutes to reach food retail outlets. Efforts to expand public transportation in these counties should include considerations of access to food outlets.

Suggested Citation

Colasanti, K., Drexler, C., McDermott, M., Barkel, C., Dyer, L., & Parks, C. (2019). When Healthy Food is Out of Reach: Food Access Survey in Northwest Lower Michigan. Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems. Retrieved from:

Download the file to read the full survey results!



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