Madison has found itself grappling with false choices between access to food and access to health care.
As frustrating as the debates may be, one of them has sparked honest, nuanced conversations about the priorities of our community — conversations that have led to promising developments on the city’s south side.
For months, residents of south Madison have been faced with the prospect of losing their only full-service grocery store, following the announcement that SSM Health plans to purchase the Pick ‘n Save at 1312 S. Park St. in order to demolish the property and build a clinic. City officials have said from the start that they will work to fill the gap, but residents are rightfully concerned that any amount of time will pass without ready access to fresh food.
“I don’t have a car, I don’t drive, and it’s so handy to shop here at the store,” Rita O’Neill, 77, told Cap Times reporter Lisa Speckhard Pasque last month.
O’Neill, who walks with a cane, shops at the store so frequently that she joked with Speckhard Pasque that it should rent her a room.
Trader Joe’s and Midway Asian Foods offer relatively nearby options with fresh food, but the closest full-service grocery store to the Pick ‘n Save property is the Festival Foods on East Washington Avenue — at least a half-hour bus ride away. In an area of Madison with high percentages of low-income residents and low rates of vehicle access, that matters all the more.
The surrounding area has already been designated by the city as a Food Access Improvement focus area. If the Pick ‘n Save closes with no replacement, the threat of a food desert becomes all but certain — and even if it’s a temporary change, the harm can’t be ignored, and will be amplified by the neighborhood’s income and transportation limitations.
The good news is that community leaders, along with the grassroots organization South Madison Unite, have organized to put the pressure on city officials in an effort to prevent an “after-the-fact” solution to the grocery gap. And the city has responded.
Next door to the Pick ‘n Save is a vacant lot known as Truman Olson, for the Army Reserve center that once stood there. The lot is owned by the city, and city officials have been working for months to strike a deal with a developer to build a grocery store on the property.
Last week — after months of talking with another developer — the city released a new request for proposals for the site.
The new RFP prioritizes “timely grocery access and the creation of better connectivity,” according to a statement from the city and SSM Health. Developers and grocers have until Aug. 9 to offer their plans.
SSM Health has shown a welcome willingness to work with the city and the community to keep south Madison from becoming a food desert, but it's not yet certain they will succeed.
A more clearly disappointing food-vs.-health care debate was raised last week by Cap Times food editor Lindsay Christians as she reported on UW Health’s recent decision to end several relationships it had built with local farmers and producers in an effort to cut costs.
After touting its commitment to local, sustainable sourcing for several years, UW Health has scaled back on those efforts — citing demands for space and funding within the organization.
“If you’re spending more money on food, that’s less money for the latest machine for patients,” Megan Waltz, UW Health director of culinary services and clinical nutrition, told Christians.
Waltz also cited limited loading dock space as a factor in the decision.
That all may be true. But rather than abruptly canceling contracts with local suppliers, UW Health should have taken an approach similar to the city of Madison’s response to SSM Health’s plans — seeking ways to avoid an unnecessary choice.
As my own doctor (and my dad, also a doctor) would jump at the chance to remind me, the food we eat plays a role in our overall health. There’s no doubt we need more access to health care services. Let’s just make sure that doesn’t come at the expense of services that might prevent us from needing treatments down the road.
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