Jacqueline Wattles photo

Access to high-quality and affordable food is a real problem for low-income Hartford residents, according to a new report from the Connecticut Forum.

The Connecticut Forum’s report, released Thursday, highlights a link between the city’s abundance of poverty and climbing rate of obesity, and it also proposes a plan to coordinate community efforts to address the issue.

According to the report, Hartford is the third poorest city in the nation among communities above 50,000 in population while obesity rates, particularly among children, are high.

Tim Cole of West Wind Consulting, the author of the report, said his firm spent more than a year gathering the information and putting together recommendations on how to address the issues.

“When you look at obesity and food security, Harford is as bad off as any place in the country,” he said.

The report found that the crux of the issue is that access to “healthy, high-quality, affordable food” is problematic, while access to processed and fast foods is easy.

Richard Sugarman, the founding president of the Connecticut Forum, said that struggling families eat unhealthy foods because they lack viable alternatives. He said that because healthy food options are more expensive, less available, and more difficult to identify — it forces poor families to gravitate toward unhealthy options.

“I think that what’s happened is that we see the food sources — the large restaurant and fast food resources — have filled a void,” he said. “It’s a combustible combination.”

Feeding America’s 2010 “Map the Meal Gap” study said 13.7 percent of Hartford County residents are “food insecure,” or lacked access to adequate food because of cost or other resource deficiencies at some point over the course of a year.

Of that 13.7 percent, as many as 48 percent of those families are ineligible for programs like the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which gives families 185 percent below the poverty level the option to use food stamps at farmers’ markets and grocery stores.

Sugarman said families in Hartford who aren’t eligible for SNAP have options — such as local food pantries, soup kitchens, and programs offered by local faith-based organizations — but raising awareness of the programs has been an obstacle.

“It goes back to raising the profile and intensity of the awareness of the problem,” Sugarman said. “This problem has been sort of evolving and happening. We haven’t been paying too much attention to people who don’t have a lot of power, money, or influence. It’s time we did.”

The report focuses on the severity of the problem among the city’s youth. It states that in 2009, it was reported that 40 percent of Hartford children were “at risk” or obese, compared to a statewide average of 25 percent.

“It is also clear from the research that there is a strong correlation between high Free/Reduced Price Meals program eligibility rates and likelihood of obesity rates,” the report states.

According to information collected in 2012 by the state Department of Public Health, in places where 75 percent or more of children are eligible for free or reduced meals, an average of 44 percent of children are overweight or obese. In places where only 25 percent or fewer children are eligible for those meals, the obesity rate is around 27 percent.

Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra said addressing these issues is all about leveraging the resources that already exist.

“I think that we need to recognize that even today we have infrastructure in place that can really serve as places where we can connect people to food in better ways,” he said.

“As it relates to children, we have an entire infrastructure of schools . . . What we need to do is work together so we can have quicker access to the resources, which is basically nutritious food, and to be able to distribute that through different systems and policies that are effective.”

Jacqueline Wattles photo

Sugarman said utilizing space and available resources will be the cornerstone of beginning to see improvement in the food security rates.

“The most important thing is having the spaces available to give people access to healthy food. We can do all the talking, all the preventing, and all the policy we want; if we don’t have places, nothing can happen,” he said.

Sugarman said the issue will also have to be addressed in the healthcare sector. He said when impoverished families do not have access to doctors or medical care, they do not receive preventative treatments or guidance on health issues.

Cole pointed to the report’s suggestion of using a “collective impact” model of putting the changes in motion.

“There are a whole slew of really good organizations that are working on these issues,” he said. “It’s not like we need to invent anything . . . I see a need to do some things differently with what we’ve got.”

He said he envisions developing a “backbone organization” that can coordinate the efforts of state and local organizations — such as Food Share, Hartford Food System,End Hunger Connecticut, and Hartford Childhood Wellness Alliance — to increase awareness of the various food programs and bring together stakeholders that can guide policy and action.

“We can set up a collective impact structure where we have identified a backbone organization to service the hub,” Cole said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be a large organization, but there has to be a buy-in of that organization playing that role.”

He said he would like the organization to include public officials from the city, the Board of Education, community organizations, and members of the small and large business communities.

“With that you set up a work plan that directs what organizations do what, and set goals for them,” he said.

The report states plans to form a steering committee and hold a stakeholder conference to begin coordinating efforts. Sugarman said they intend to have an initial meeting in late July or early August.

But Cole said the success of their effort will hinge on having adequate leadership.

“It’s going to take a high-level champion. Someone like the mayor,” Cole said. “He will have the ability to get the attention of the business communities, state government, large healthcare institutions, and so on.”

Segarra agreed he would need to play a major role in the process, and said he is committed to doing so.

“It’s an issue of leadership, actually, from my end, making sure I stay on the issue and work with the partners to facilitate [changes] with our infrastructure,” Segarra said.

He said the issue is one that is close to his heart, and his administration would take deliberate steps toward addressing it.

“As a child, I went hungry. I’m not talking about skipping an occasional meal, I’m talking about continuous days of nothing to eat,” Segarra said. “It shatters the spirit. It shatters the lives of our children to go hungry. It should not be happening.”

His immediate plan is to open up his administration and make it amenable to changes, he said.

“When you become a transparent administration, you open yourself up for all the good and all the bad that lies within the institutions that you lead,” Segarra said. “But I’m not afraid of that because after you have that level of transparency, the next part is to see where you need to change policy . . . and I’m committed to doing that.”

The report also outlines municipal initiatives such as planting more school gardens, implementing zoning ordinances that support urban agriculture, and developing a compose pick-up program. Cole said many of the recommendations are based on the Hartford Advisory Commission on Food Policy’s 2013 report.