Saturday, October 25, 2014

Food deserts: Not just a problem for urban communities

I’ve always viewed rural America in a nostalgic fashion, a view that many Americans likely share. I perceived rural areas as quaint, safe, small towns where everyone knows each other. I imagined people living on sprawling farms and getting up early every morning to tend to the animals and crops. Rural life was a life free from problems. However, over the course of the last few months, I have learned that many of my preconceptions of rural areas have been wrong. Rural America suffers from many problems, including a lack of doctors and teachers, poverty, decreasing populations, and mental health issues, just to name a few. Recently, I learned about yet another problem that rural America faces: food deserts.

Food deserts are areas with limited access to affordable and healthy food, usually due to the absence of grocery stores within a convenient distance. While food deserts exist in both urban and rural communities, their definitions differ due to the different characteristics of each community. A rural food desert is defined as an area where residents must drive more than 10 miles to the closest grocery store or supermarket. According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, approximately 25% of Americans living in food deserts are located in rural areas. To find out if you live in a food desert, check out the USDA food desert map locator here.

Food deserts exist in rural areas for several reasons. One of the largest contributing factors is lack of reliable transportation. Driving more than 10 miles may not seem far to those who own vehicles, but for those without a car, getting to a grocery store can be a daunting task. If you live in a rural area, public transportation is likely lacking. That leaves the option of getting a ride from a friend, which can often be difficult, or finding other modes of transportation, such as a taxi. However, assuming taxis are even an option in certain rural areas, this mode of transportation can be expensive. If a grocery store is 10 miles away, assuming an average initial charge of $2.50 and per mile charge of $2, transportation costs alone would cost approximately $45 round trip. When finding transportation to a grocery store becomes prohibitively difficult and expensive, the only option left may be to shop at the local convenience store where fruits and vegetables are likely to be in short supply.

Low population density is also a contributing factor in rural areas. With low populations, supermarkets or grocery chains are less likely to exist. For example, rural counties in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi average only one supermarket per 153.5 square miles. If a rural area is lucky enough to have a supermarket, because populations in rural areas are declining, these markets may close down or relocate to more populous places. According to the Center for Rural Affairs, one in five grocery stores has gone out of business in the last four years in rural areas. For more statistics on grocery store loss in rural areas, see this post. With supermarkets being nonexistent or closing, the prospect of gaining access to healthy food is grim

The expense of fruits and vegetables and the inconvenience of cooking is another contributing factor to food deserts in rural areas. Healthier foods tend to be more expensive than unhealthy ones. For example, while the overall price of fruits and vegetables in the United States increased by nearly 75% between 1989 and 2005, the price of fatty foods dropped by more than 26% during the same period. Additionally, the cooking fresh meals can be time consuming, while picking up a fast food meal, a microwave meal, or even a bag of chips and soda is quick and filling due to high fat content. With unhealthful food being cheaper and more convenient than healthy options, people are less likely to purchase these healthy alternatives. Consequently, convenience stores are less likely to carry fruit and vegetables if customers rarely purchase them.

If people in rural areas still have access to food in convenience stores, why should we care that so many rural communities are now considered food deserts? The answer is because food deserts are correlated with high rates of diseases such as diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. This also has a major impact on America’s wallet; according to a nationwide study in 2012, the cost of diagnosed diabetes is approximately $176 billion each year in medical expenses alone.

At the beginning of this post, I mentioned how my previously nostalgic views of rural life have changed over the last few months as I’ve become aware of the many problems that rural communities face, such as poverty, decreasing populations, and now, food deserts. I open and close with this thought because I believe it’s important for us to at least recognize that life in rural areas isn't as simple and carefree as shown in the media, but rural communities face many obstacles that are often intertwined. Hopefully, with increased public awareness, people will push policy makers to create policies that help increase access to fresh foods, improve public transportation (for example, options like the Brunswick Explorer as discussed in this post), and help with the myriad of other issues that rural communities face.


Desi Fairly said...

I have mixed feelings about the legitimacy of the "food desert" issue. My opinion is not based on research, but rather is anecdotal based on a few rural communities that I visited to do CalFresh (food stamp) outreach. The conclusion that I reached is that the food desert research paradigm does not take into account rural communities where people grow crops in home gardens and then share them amongst neighbors. Research and corporate supermarket standards classify these towns as "food deserts", but if you take into account the individual sharing practices that go on, they are actually food tropics.

Kate said...

This is so interesting. When I was younger, I lived about 5 miles from the local grocery store. I never thought about the incidental costs associated with getting to the store. However, our store was a Raleys and in no short supply of great vegetable and fruit selection. I did drive through some very remote cities on my way down to LA. I wonder if a potential solution would be the delivery of fruits to a central, local location for distribution. I know that several for profit organic farms in the area are doing this- perhaps if this is adopted for food deserts, locals would have at least some consistent access to healthy foods.

Enrique Fernandez said...

Brilliant topic. When I think of food deserts, I think of low income urban areas. But there is a need to be cognizant of the food deserts in rural areas, especially when considering impoverished, rural areas. The large distances between food centers and rural consumers can be extensive and transportation means, limited. I know of individuals in rural Iowa that would travel 20 plus miles to go grocery shopping, which is concerning.

I imagine that in food deserts like this, it must be extremely difficult for parents of low income youth to not only obtain access to grocery stores, but access to federally funded food sources for their children. The USDA affords money to state agencies through the Food and Nutrition Service agency for low income youth to receive free lunches during the summer months. The funds are readily available for organizations to provide such meals; however, in rural areas I'm sure that it can be difficult for kids to get to the meals or the meals to get the kids, in the same what that it is generally difficult to get groceries.

Charlie said...

Also related to the lack of access to grocery stores, I wonder if children in rural areas have access to nutritious foods at their schools. Do schools in rural areas offer sufficient amounts of fruits and vegetables, given their proximity to farms, or are these schools offering the same junk food that urban schools offer, such as hot dogs and pizzas? I guess it becomes a money issue, since like you mentioned, fruits and vegetables are becoming more expensive these days. It's unbelievable how cheap fast food is, and thus, how attractive fast food becomes to individuals and families who are tight on their budgets.

Damon Alimouri said...

Food Deserts, what a tragic topic. A country rich with food, a vast expanse of farmland brimming with nutritious vegetables and fruits, and yet many are compelled to purchase garbage that is marketed as edible or simply not eat at all.

Why? Because its profitable for big businesses.

People often forget that a lot of the processed junk is about as expensive as nutritious food, or even more expensive in some cases.

It is widely marketed not simply because its a cheap buy, but also because its incredibly inexpensive to produce.

A killing is being made various times over, and the victims are the poor.

Juliana said...

Great post. Lack of reliable transportation is obviously a huge factor in the creating of food deserts in rural areas. I also think it is worth noting that lack of reliable transportation also leads to a ton of other problems in rural communities -- like access to jobs, healthcare, and other resources. This is just to say that while affordable, accessible transportation won't solve all of rural America's problems, it is a contributing factor to the issue of access that reaches beyond just access to food.

Ahva said...

Interesting post. As you mentioned, because unhealthy foods are less expensive than fresh fruits and vegetables, people in food deserts are more likely to buy unhealthy foods. Gallup recently published a nationwide study on obesity which found that, although obesity rates in food deserts are higher, Americans residing in low-income areas with limited access to grocery stores are only marginally more likely to be obese than those living in low-income areas that do have access to grocery stores. This would suggest that income is a greater predictor of obesity than is access to healthy foods. Of course, obesity is not the only factor we should be concerned with in regard to food deserts. Access to healthy food should be a basic human right.