BALDWIN, Mich. — At one of only two grocery stores in this village with about 1,200 residents, there is no produce aisle – just a few shelves between the packaged goods. There are no green beans, no lettuce. The grapefruits feel soft inside their plastic netting. Apples cannot be located; asparagus spears, dry as twigs, splinter at the touch.
Outside the supermarket, the rural Northern Michigan landscape is dotted with groves of trees, fields where deer poke their heads up, and a river filled with trout. But, the woods here hold mostly trailers, many of them rentals; the fields are not being farmed; and inside the supermarket, the produce is old and in short supply. Even if customers had the money to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, there is little available.
In Letcher County, Kentucky, many families live half a mile or more from the nearest grocery store. This might not be a problem, but almost 14 percent of all households in the rural county do not have access to a vehicle to get to a store, and public transportation is difficult to come by.
And in South Los Angeles, few grocery stores operate in historically African-American neighborhoods, which now have a larger Latino population. Corner stores exist, but sell mainly packaged food.
Geographically dissimilar and miles apart, these three regions have one thing in common: They are food deserts. These deserts are “parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods…largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers,” according to a definition by the American Nutrition Association.
About 23.5 million people live in food deserts in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service, and 2.3 million people are housed in impoverished areas more than 10 miles from a grocery store.
“To qualify as a food desert,” according to the USDA, “at least one third percent of a geographic tract’s population, or a minimum of 500 people, must have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store.” The USDA defines “low access” as “more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store in urban areas and more than 10 miles in rural areas.”
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Low quality food, lack of transportation, and the absence of grocery stores all contribute to food insecurity – when families don’t have enough to eat.
“There are places where it’s hard to find healthy food,” says Valerie Horn. Horn is the Letcher County project director of Appal-TREE (Appalachians Together Restoring the Eating Environment), a program of the Community Farm Alliance, which is dedicated to increasing families’ access to nutritious foods in Eastern Kentucky.
Letcher also coordinates the Grow Appalachia program, which works to address food security in the mountainous region.
Letcher County is home to 22,000 residents, three towns and grocery stores. “There are plenty of folks, though, that may be 20-30 minutes from one of those stores with only a community ‘store’ for their supplemental shopping, beyond the bigger grocery shopping trips. Poverty is the root of many issues in Eastern Kentucky, and food access is one of those problems,” Horn says.
Compounding this is that coal mining once provided adequate employment for residents in Eastern Kentucky. These days, those jobs are disappearing. One out of every four people in the Appalachian Kentucky live in poverty, according to studies.
For some families, obtaining healthy food is not just a question of money; there simply are no supermarkets.
This is especially true in South Los Angeles. The image of the urban bodega, with baskets of fresh produce, is a New York phenomenon. “LA is very different, with corner stores that mainly sell liquor and fast food,” says Aiha Nguyen of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE). “Corner stores just don’t have refrigeration.”
While the wealthier, whiter neighborhoods of Los Angeles have plenty of grocery stores with healthy foods, poorer neighborhoods like South Los Angeles, home to more Black and Latino families, are more likely to have “no stores or stores that were closing, and had been closing since the riots [of 1992],” Nguyen says.
Many grocery stores shuttered in the aftermath of the 1992 Rodney King verdict riots. In some cases, of those that remained, she observes, “When they did provide food, the meat was green, and the produce was brown.”
Today, grassroots advocates say, supermarkets still fail to see South Los Angeles as a profitable area in which to open a store.
Families in food deserts are forced to make meals out of the little food they find at corner stores and convenience markets, or to turn to fast food, which often is readily available. In both urban and rural food deserts, some fast food chains have seized the opportunity to make a profit, to the detriment of families’ health.
According to the American Nutrition Association, “while food deserts are often short on whole food providers, especially fresh fruits and vegetables…they are heavy on local quickie marts that provide a wealth of processed, sugar, and fat laden foods that are known contributors to our nation’s obesity epidemic.”
LAANE’s Nguyen points out the “clear health impact of lack of access to quality food: diabetes, heart disease, hypertension. Experts say ‘eat your 5 servings,’ but without giving access to it, it doesn’t solve that problem.”
Fresh produce is also one of the most expensive food items at supermarkets, and the most difficult for food pantries to stock because of its expense and short shelf life. The result is that it becomes hard for families in food deserts to find fresh fruits and vegetables anywhere.
“Without that garden and barn and [with] limited funds, the food choices go way down,” Horn of the Community Farm Alliance says.
She is working to change that in Letcher County, coordinating with the county health department so that families may use their WIC (Women Infants and Children) and SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits for fresh produce at the Letcher County Farmers Market, which is open six months of the year.
Thanks to work by the Community Farm Alliance, the “Double Dollars Program” allows Eastern Kentucky families to double the value of their benefits when using them to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables from farmers at the market. This supports the local agriculture economy and gives families incentives to shop for healthy foods.
Grow Appalachia is also tackling the problem of food deserts by encouraging families to grow their own fruits and vegetables, providing assistance, tools, and training. This includes help with plowing, tilling, seeds, plants, tools, garden workshops, harvesting and preservation, and farmers’ market support, according to the group.
Grow Appalachia’s commitment to support families’ healthy eating also includes assistance with bee keeping and raising chickens.
In South Los Angeles, Nguyen says, LAANE is making strides on the policy level to improve access to healthy foods by working to “create incentives for grocery stores to open in food deserts.”
Supermarkets have not seen South Los Angeles as a potential profit center, Nguyen adds, so the first step is often reframing the conversation. “Companies have to be flexible in terms of how they view profitability,” she says. “In poorer neighborhoods, it’s not going to be $100 dollars in one trip, it’s going to be five $24 trips.”
Both the Community Farm Alliance and LAANE are building on their community’s specific strengths to improve food desert conditions. In Letcher County, this means focusing on Eastern Kentucky’s farming and gardening potential, which Horn describes as “offering a ray of hope for another use for the land, one that folks here control and have the benefits of.”
In South Los Angeles, this means “corner store conversions – work[ing] with owners to give them the technical training to start providing refrigeration for fresh fruit and vegetables,” Nguyen says. There is also talk of seeking licensing to allow for expansion of what Nguyen calls “mobile grocery stores” – vendors who sell produce out of their trucks.
With community programs, incentives, and policy, both groups are working to turn food deserts into a place where real growth can take root.
Alison Stine is a writer, visual artist and author, most recently of the novel, “Supervision.” She is a writing fellow for the Center for Community Change. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, The Paris Review and Jezebel. She lives with her son in the Appalachian portion of Ohio. About the top image: Members of Los Angeles Community Action Network, known as LA CAN, grow fresh vegetables to help residents in the Skid Row neighborhood of the city. Photo courtesy of LA CAN
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