Growing up, I lived less than a ten-minute walk from a grocery store. Not only was this convenient when it came to satisfying random 8 p.m. cravings, but my sister and I actually both worked as cashiers there for our very first jobs.
For most of us, this doesn’t sound too far-fetched. Many of us were lucky enough to grow up within a few miles from a grocery store or at least have a car to easily access one within a reasonable radius.
But many rural Americans, especially those living in the South, live without access to fresh produce. Hispanics, African-Americans, elderly people who are unable to drive or shop for themselves and single mother households are at the most risk. In fact, it is estimated that almost 24 million Americans live in food deserts. This number is probably much higher as the classification system considers corner convenience stores like a 7/11 a supermarket, while they typically sell very limited, if any, fresh food. Consider this map depicting the percentage of populations without a car or grocery store within a mile:
Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign announced its goal to eradicate food deserts by 2017. However, the plan powered by a $400 million grant from the government was not effective enough to reach its goal, and millions of low-income Americans still struggle with obesity and chronic diseases due to limited availability of healthy options.
Take Holmes County in the Lower Mississippi Delta, where there is only one grocery store every 191 square miles, some towns containing none at all. With a median income of only $20,700 in the county, thousands of families without a car and nonexistent public transportation, 6,000 households in the county are food insecure, meaning they don’t know where their next meal will come from. Paradoxically, groceries are often more expensive in low-income areas, as rural stores struggle to make a profit and urban stores have to pay higher rent and have less space, worsening the problem.
A Holmes County mother interviewed for the Clairon Leger is unemployed because she must care for her disabled daughter and has no access to a car. She describes shopping at the Dollar General close by, where her only options are canned soup and fruit cocktail in syrup. She casually mentioned to the reporter that she skipped meals often when she didn’t have enough money to feed herself, and that she had trained her body to go without food for a day or longer.
One might assume that a food desert would result in underweight people with protruding ribs, but with the only accessible food being fried, processed, sugary fast food and snacks, the opposite is true. It’s no surprise that Mississippi is the second heaviest state, with over 37% of its population suffering from obesity. Children who grow up obese are more likely to become obese adults and suffer from life-threatening chronic illnesses linked with obesity such as diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, several types of cancer, sleep apnea and more. Health and obesity can often limit someone’s ability to be successful in their careers and find more opportunities, thus, they are less likely to leave their low-income area and break the cycle.
Here’s what you can do to help. First, check out food deserts near you on the USDA website: https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-access-research-atlas/go-to-the-atlas.aspx
Find a local garden where you can volunteer to provide communities with fresh, nutritious produce: https://communitygarden.org/find-a-garden/
Or, donate to a food bank near you: https://www.feedingamerica.org/find-your-local-foodbank.