BY SHÉREE VODICKA We know that eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and dairy are important to maintain good health and a healthy body weight. One major barrier to eating a healthy diet is lack of access to these foods in low-income communities. In North Carolina, more than 1.5 million residents live in one of 349 food deserts, where access to healthy food is limited.
A food desert is defined as a low-income census tract where a full service grocery store is more than a mile away—and in rural areas, more than 10 miles away. Low-income families are less likely to own a car, making getting to the grocery store difficult at best. Many families end up shopping at convenience or corner stores, which often don’t stock fresh produce, low fat dairy foods, or lean meats. Plus, the foods these convenience stores do stock are more expensive. A survey in Southeast Raleigh found that food at convenience stores cost 66% more than those found in grocery stores.
Research has shown that one of the most common reasons for people not to eat fruits and vegetables is due to fresh produce’s high cost and perishability. Many North Carolinians simply cannot afford healthy food. These barriers to a balanced diet negatively impact the health of our state.
So what are the answers? One solution is to focus efforts on increasing access to healthy, affordable food by increasing the number of grocery stores in these food deserts, or helping corner and convenience store owners offer produce and other healthier foods at an affordable price. Education is important, too, but teaching people how to eat healthy isn’t effective if folks can’t buy the food they need.
North Carolina is an agricultural state. The foods that so many of our residents cannot purchase are grown right here. Pilot programs that support small store owners who want to purchase local produce are already underway. Giving these corner store owners small incentives, such grants to buy refrigeration equipment and marketing materials to promote healthy foods, has made a difference in the communities that are giving this a try. A state level program could amplify those efforts, introducing healthy local food into food deserts.
By bringing together local foods and small retailers in food deserts, we can begin to combat the negative effects of our high obesity and diabetes rates. This will help improve North Carolina’s health and economy at the same time.
Sherée Thaxton Vodicka is the Executive Director of the NC Alliance of YMCAs. In this role, Sherée conducts advocacy work for childhood obesity prevention through policy change at the state level, and collaborates with the 28 Corporate YMCA CEOs across the state to engage in healthier communities initiatives. Sherée is an active member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and practices what she preaches. She loves to cook delicious, nutritious meals with fresh ingredients from her garden, and stays in shape by running, biking, and practicing Pilates and yoga. She resides in Raleigh with her husband, Doug.