Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Town missing local grocer

The term ‘food desert’ is often associated with urban neighborhoods lacking access to healthy food markets. These neighborhoods are ridden with corner liquor stores. This phenomenon has a lot to do with the fact that during the height of urban redevelopment in post-WWII Americas many insurance companies and city planners red lined whole communities, deeming them too risky to insure. This translated into grocery stores not willing to set up shop because they were unable to get insurance for their stores in certain neighborhoods. Unfortunately, this redlining was based on racist and classist stereotypes, the neighborhoods most affected by these redlining policies were populated by poor working class people and people of color. To this day, these policies have severely affected the communities’ abilities to access healthy food.

Many rural communities are experiencing a growing problem similar to that of the urban ‘food desert.’ As rural population numbers continue to dwindle (as discussed in this PBS article), services like the local grocer are also skipping town, leaving communities hungry for their business. According to a 2007 study by the Rural Sociological Society, lack of access to healthy food in the rural context is defined by the following

Rural areas risk becoming “food deserts” as young families move away and market pressures continue to squeeze small grocers and retailers. Food deserts are defined as counties in which all residents must drive more than 10 miles to the nearest supermarket chain or supercenter.

The 2007 study also identifies communities that are more likely to be food insecure. They are more likely to have a larger percentage of people who do not have high school degrees; higher individual and family poverty rates; greater percentage of people living in sparsely populated areas; and are more likely to be older populations. In addition, the study looked at all of U.S. counties marking 418 as food deserts, 98% located in non-metropolitan areas, most in areas with towns or cities of fewer than 10,000 people.

This NPR story looks at the case of Ogana, a Kansas town of 700 that lost its grocery store to a fire. The previous grocers decided not to rebuild, and the community was left without its sole grocer. People had to drive more than 25 miles to the nearest grocery store. No one in town had the financial capability to build a new grocery store. City officials stepped in and decided to foot the bill, an investment they claim they had to make. Mayor Gary Holthaus commented

"I feel you need to do those things in rural communities if you want to survive," Holthaus said. "You can't just ignore the issue and say it'll be alright . . . it won't be."

The city of Ogana decided to take a road less traveled, the private-public partnership to set up a business to provide this basic service for its community. This model is a familiar site in urban settings. Taking cues from the urban food security movement, the Rural Grocery Store Initiative explores various models and strategies available to bring back a thriving local grocer to small towns otherwise left without those services.

However, unlike their urban counterpart, rural communities find themselves in a unique spatial setting that begs a questioning of this concept of food desert. Does this food insecurity dilemma manifest in the same ways in both the urban and rural settings? One factor that needs to be considered in some rural communities is that they may have access to land to grow their own food or hunt. Taking into account the rising cost of food in supermarkets, families will often grow subsistence gardens or farms. The alternative could also be to turn to fish and game to supplement. Another indicator of food insecurity in rural communities is the distance a person may be from a supermarket. These markets are becoming major chains like Walmart. Should we hold food insecurity measures on the distance a person has to drive to the closest Walmart, Target, or Safeway?

People in rural areas may not have access to these supermarket chains, but it doesn't mean they should be lumped entirely under the food insecure category. As the vice president of a local bank in Ogana, Kansas, Dan Peters, indicated, investing in a local grocer (even a small business) will also ensure the livelihood of the whole community.

"People now [think], 'I have to drive and get my groceries . . . so instead of coming to the local hardware store I'll just stop at Home Depot or some hardware store out of town while I'm there," Peters said. Without a grocery store, he says, it's hard to keep residents."When you start losing population, you start losing the ability to keep your infrastructure in town going," Peters said. "Property valuations go down and it just snowballs until what's left of the town? There's not much there."

Looking at distance, mobility (as discussed in this blog post), cultural relativism, and poverty may give us better indicators to understand the lack of access to healthy food in rural areas than the same existing measures set up for urban areas. Overall, I think "food insecurity" or healthy food scarcity should be measured differently in rural areas as there is a world of a difference in why people eat what they eat or what they cannot or will not eat.


Scarecrow said...

Food cooperatives might be a way to deal with this problem. Rural electrification has been aided by cooperatives that were willing to invest in infrastructure when power companies wouldn't. And in addition to providing food to local residents, grocery stores also provide jobs. The biggest challenge is finding people with the expertise to handle the business side of such operations. Of course, places in California with a plethroa of local food options are in a much better position than places that have more limited food options.

princesspeach said...

I feel like many of us know of the food deserts in urban areas because it is well publicized and there are countless stories/movies/documentaries on the subject. Personally, I had no idea of food deserts in rural areas because I assumed many rural areas have agriculture as a commodity, so fresh produce should therefore be readily available.

A few weeks ago on the NBC Nightly News, the following story aired:

It is about a food truck that sells fresh produce and moves around to different urban neighborhoods. If a rural community is unable to support a grocery store, perhaps the community can initiative a similar initiative with the neighboring communities.

KB said...

Grocery stores are not only important for providing food and employment to rural communities; they also serve as a place where community members can catch up with their neighbors and friends. Almost every time I go to the grocery store in my small hometown, I run into someone I went to high school with or a family friend. It is in the grocery store where we catch up on each other’s lives, learn about each other’s families, and in general foster a sense of community. It would be a shame for a rural community such as Ogana to lose such a gathering place, when it likely has few others. Using a food cooperative model could also help to enhance the community aspect of the local grocery store.

Lisa R. Pruitt said...

Here's a post I wrote about this time last year regarding the response of a rural community in Australia to the loss of its only grocery store:

Encouraging, even heart-warming, no?