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Nearly 3,800 Connecticut residents have food stamps, but no access to food

People shop at a grocery store.
Nam Y. Huh
People shop at a grocery store.

Nearly 3,800 Connecticut residents who use food stamps do not live in a town with a grocery store that accepts them. The state Legislature may create an Office of the Food Access Advocate to change that.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s José Luis Martínez to discuss his article, “CT food deserts: In 24 towns, no stores accept food stamps,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: Hello, José, let's start by talking about what the northeast corner is. The northeast corner of Connecticut is kind of a rural area. So why is it a food desert?

JM: Yeah, so, the northeast corner, like you mentioned, it's a lot of rural towns, a lot of trees, not a lot of retail stores. And the reason some of these areas are food deserts is because these residents live spaced out in areas where the nearest retail store, grocery store or gas station is at least a few miles away. And that creates problems for people that have no vehicles, no access to transportation. And so that's why the term is food desert, you know, and there's an official definition that the federal government has. But in simple terms, it's these areas where it's really hard to get access to areas that have nutritious food, unlike areas, for example, in Hartford, where, it's not perfect, but there's a whole bunch of groceries, a mini market, and other stores with access to nutritious food.

WSHU: So basically, they have to travel a distance to get to where they can get fresh produce, right?

JM: Yes, exactly.

WSHU: And that's kind of interesting, considering that this is a pretty rural area, and you have a lot of farms. And so you might have farm stands. The other thing you mentioned in your article is that a lot of the places that do have groceries don't take food stamps, why?

JM: Yeah, so it's for a variety of reasons. Given that these are rural areas, you know, whether it's a business owner or a store, they're much smaller. And so to have this permit to be accepting food stamps, there's a lot of financial barriers. You have to purchase equipment to start accepting food stamps, there's administrative barriers, a lot of forms you have to fill out. There are things you have to comply with, they do random inspections. If you're selling stuff that you're not allowed to under SNAP, you could get fined for that. So it's for a variety of reasons. So what I mentioned in the story is a survey that was done in a different state about the barriers facing these folks. So there's a variety of reasons, but the main ones would be administrative and financial resources.

WSHU: There are a lot of low-income people living in these areas. How do they get around with the lack of transportation?

JM: So fortunately, some of them may have access to a vehicle, in which case they can make the 15 to 20 minute drive. Someone like Patty, who we mentioned in the story, does not have a vehicle, she relies on friends and family to give her rides to the nearest grocery store. And some rely on public transportation. But what residents are saying is that these shuttle arrivals are spaced out by over an hour. Even advocates are saying that public transportation can take you to a grocery store where you get frozen goods, but the next shuttle won't arrive until hours later, so that could spoil your food. There's online deliveries as well and some retailers that accept food stamps online, which is very beneficial. But not every retailer does not do it yet.

WSHU: So what are lawmakers talking about? Are there any remedies in the works?

JM: Yeah, so there's one bill, House Bill 6854, that would do two things. One, it would create the Office of the Food Access Advocate, that would basically be the center point for resources related to food deserts, food insecurity, all that stuff. Providing financial grants, information, support, all that stuff, which will be really beneficial for those folks looking for, the one-stop shop for all things related to that.

Now, the second thing it would do is it would create tax incentives for grocery stores to open up in these underserved areas. There's one caveat, though. The only way these grocery stores would be able to act as a tax incentive is if they enter into a labor peace agreement with a union of some sort. And to clarify, that doesn't mean workers have to be legally unionized. It just means that the employer would agree to not prevent the workers from speaking to the union, not protecting access to them. So it's a labor peace agreement. They still have to debate it some more, talk it out, hash out some details, but as it stands, that's the only way to access the tax incentive.

WSHU: One of the reasons grocery stores have not moved to those areas is because they are sparsely populated. So they don't feel that it was financially viable to have a grocery store in those areas. That's the main reason.

JM: Yeah, it's one of the many reasons, you know, there's a lot of environmental reasons such as there's not good sewage, not a lot of water access. And sometimes, yeah, like you mentioned, these areas are just not as densely populated as other areas. So bringing a Walmart or a big supermarket might not be the most profitable business for someone. Another thing that plays into it is local zoning regulations, they vary by town. So some may have more restrictions on the type of retail that may be allowed.

WSHU: What's the role of the community markets in this? Is there any incentive for more community markets for cooperatives?

JM: Yeah, so one of the examples that we mentioned in the story is TEEG. And they do a variety of things. The thing that we highlight in the story is that in their community market they provide nutritious food for free to any resident that comes in, and they do it every day of the week. You don't have to have food stamps. So whether you have food stamps or not, you can walk in, you have a variety of products to choose from, you have cereal, vegetables, fruits, milk, meats. That stuff that is usually very expensive to get in supermarkets for those low-income folks. And there's a ton of those programs. It's not just TEEG doing that work. TEEG helps around 300 families every month. and there's other food banks that help out in higher numbers, some help in lower numbers.

WSHU: Where does this stand as far as legislation is concerned? Are advocates optimistic that they'll get this through this year?

JM: The bill came out of the Human Services Committee. Now it's going to be sent to the floor to be discussed, and to the other chamber. And then you still have the two money committees that it has to get through because there's the creation of the Office of the Food Access Advocate part, and there's also the tax incentive.

So it might have to go through both the finance and appropriations committee and it still has a way to go. But you know, advocates are hopeful that it makes it through. It's at least one step closer to bringing in those grocery stores or any other options for these people in underserved areas.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Molly is a reporter covering Connecticut. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.