Even on its hottest days, Independence is not thought of having any desert-like conditions.

Even on its hottest days, Independence is not thought of having any desert-like conditions.

But Independence Health Department officials, along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, have identified three areas across the city as “food deserts,” or low-income census tracts where a substantial number of residents have low access to a supermarket or large grocery stores.

The most significant food deserts in Independence include the Missouri 291 and U.S. 24 intersection, near Hawthorne Place Apartments, and the upper northwest corner of the city, trickling down throughout western Independence and into Raytown.

One of the three food deserts, however, surprised several Health Department staff members – the area behind Truman High School, near Noland Road to Lee’s Summit Road, between 23rd and 39th streets.

“It surprised us, I think, just because it’s kind of in the core of town,” said Alex Langford, the Health Department’s public health nutritionist.

“People wouldn’t necessarily identify that as a low-income area,” added Kristin Atkinson, the department’s public health program coordinator.

According to the federal government’s definition, low access to grocery stores is more than one mile to the nearest grocery in an urban environment like Independence. The government also recognizes that because no standard definition of a food desert exists, it’s difficult to estimate how much of the U.S. population is affected by them.

The data show how different areas identified as food deserts truly are, even within the same city boundaries. The area near Missouri 291 and U.S. 24 includes 35.3 percent of residents with low access, including 529 people identified as low-income with low access. In comparison, the area near Truman High School includes 26.5 percent of residents with low access, including 129 people as low-income with low access.

“Just because they are designated as food deserts doesn’t mean that they’re all equal,” Langford said. “There is some variation in that.”  

About three years ago, the city received several hundred survey responses from the McCoy, Manor Oaks, Bundschu, Drumm Villas, Rock Creek and Bristol neighborhoods, with questions addressing residents’ use of city parks and playgrounds, how often they walk in their neighborhoods, where they purchase their food and how often they eat fruits and vegetables.

An overwhelming majority of those surveyed – 97 percent – replied that they purchase a majority of their food at the grocery store, compared to health food stores, restaurants and Costco.

Using those survey results, about a year ago, the Health Department launched its Healthy Neighborhoods Community Project in which the city works directly with neighborhood councils and homeowners associations.

“The whole purpose is just to help provide support and education directly to neighborhoods and find out what their barriers are to physical activity, as well as eating better,” said Cindy Horne, manager of the Health Department’s community health promotion division.

As part of that project, the Health Department continues its support of community gardens across Independence, including those at Pleasant, Fairmount, Bundschu Neighborhood No. 9, Hocker Heights, Olde Oak Tree and Hawthorne Place apartment complexes and the Boys & Girls Clubs.

“These are all very successful, and there are lots of families participating in these,” Horne said. “The results have just been beyond our expectations.”

A similar community survey is expected to begin next month, and this time, the city is aiming to gather a broader sampling of residents, Horne said. Even though the two sample sizes will be different, Langford said she thinks it will be interesting to compare the newer survey results to those collected three years ago.

About eight months ago, Health Department officials took a tour of 10 mom-and-pop food-related businesses in western Independence, not including convenience stores. City staff sought out the managers at those stores, and while no promises were made, they questioned whether managerial staff would support changes made to the produce areas – and the responses were overwhelmingly positive, Horne said.

“There’s quite a bit of need,” Horne said regarding the sale of fresh produce. “It would be great if we could get some grant funding to help support the produce areas and make them more appealing. So, that’s a goal.”