MU Campus and Lee Elementary Named Food Deserts

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COLUMBIA -The end of a school year means the reflection on a program and the implementation of new regulations. The University of Missouri completed its first year offering the Zoutrition online nutrition guide. Now the Columbia Public School District is preparing for a new model and food regulations.

The University of Missouri campus and Lee Expressive Arts Elementary School were designated ‘food deserts’ by the United States Department of Agriculture.

Locally, the only designated food desert spans north from Stadium Boulevard to Broadway, between Old Hwy 63 and Providence Road.

MU graduate student Greg Soden agrees with the label. “We can’t really eat in [the MU Student Center] for under $6.50 or $7. In the larger scheme of things that’s really not that much for graduate student stipends are low, so we’re living on very little,” Soden said. “For me, getting to HyVee is a real chore. So a lot of times, I am forced to eat around campus because otherwise I simply will not eat because I have so many things to do.”

The USDA published the Food Desert Locator in 2009, it highlights low-income areas with low access to affordable healthy foods:

•”To qualify as a ‘low-income community,’ a census tract must have either: 1) a poverty rate of 20 percent or higher, OR 2) a median family income at or below 80 percent of the area’s median family income;
•To qualify as a ‘low-access community,’ at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract’s population must reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (for rural census tracts, the distance is more than 10 miles).”

According to information provided by the MU Director of Financial Aid Nicholas Prewett, the MU campus seems to fit the USDA food desert criteria. Prewett said the office processed aid for 27,057 students last year. That’s about 81 percent of MU’s 33,318 total student population in Fall 2011. The closest grocery stores are roughly three miles away in circumference.

But do school campuses make a difference? It is unclear if the USDA considered the student and faculty access to campus dining halls and food vendors when measuring for low accessibility.

Such vendors are the closest and most convenient food sources for on-campus residents. According to Campus Dining Services Marketing Manager Michael Wuest,the MU campus has 20 food locations including convenience stores, all-you-can-eat style, and retail restaurants. Wuest said every year, Campus Dining researches a local ‘marketing basket,’ setting MU’s food prices according to prices of comparable food options in the Columbia area. “That’s one misconception I think people see on college campuses is that they think everything’s more expensive because of the convenience factor,” Wuest said. “Yeah, it is convenient but when you actually do the comparisons you see that we’re right in line with what you see in the market.” Wuest added healthy food options have always been available, but a new online service is helping consumers manage their diets.

Zoutrition is an online nutrition guide to MU’s daily menus. Wuest said the cheat sheet was 10 years in the making and has seen it grow in popularity since its launch in the Fall 2011 semester. “It’s been very positive so far. We use Google Analytics for Zoutrition and we’re seeing a few thousand users throughout each month. On high days, it’s probably 4-500. On low days you’re around 100 and that’s basically in line with what you see student population here on campus,” Wuest said.

Lee Elementary will also see healthy improvements to its program. The Nutritional Services division of the Columbia Public School District is transitioning to a whole set of new USDA regulations. “What we are going to do it start a ‘regionalized kitchen’ model so that we can maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of our kitchens,” said Laina Fullam, Director of Nutritional Services.

Food for all K-8 schools in the district will be prepared in five regional kitchens and be reheated at each school. Fullam said this model will conserve, “We found that this model is the best way to be able to afford the healthier foods. We want to maximize our efficiency to afford higher quality, whole grain bread”. “The sodium content will be lower.”

Despite the expected improvements and current changes to campus dining, Soden said more can be done. “I recognize that good food costs money to make, but I think that Mizzou could lead a really interesting example by reaching out to local farmers and see what they can bring in,” Soden said. “I would like to know what it is they are actually doing.”

KOMU contacted the USDA for clarification and had not heard back as of Tuesday.

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